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Religion Library: Zen

Sacred Time

Written by: Julia Hardy

Originally the ultimate goal of Buddhism was to escape from time, from the endless cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. The idea of reincarnation was adopted along with other elements of the religion as Buddhism became established in other countries. In East Asia, however, the need to escape samsara never carried the same impact as it had in South and Southeast Asia where the concept of eons of rebirths was deeply imbedded in the collective psyche. Other ideas about the afterlife that had predated Buddhism in China persisted, and the result was a hodge-podge of ideas about the afterlife.

Before Buddhism, there was not one single prevailing concept of the afterlife. The nobility prepared for the afterlife by filling their tombs with the same objects they had used in life, or, for those less wealthy nobles, replicas of these objects. They had a rather literal sense of what life would be like after death. Sacred time as an escape from ordinary time was therefore not relevant for them. It was the continuation of ordinary time that they wanted.

In Taoism, and perhaps in preceding ideas that were carried into Taoism, there was a notion of immortality, but it was immortality in one's current body, living on earth with other humans. There were beliefs about sacred realms to which the immortals could travel and where they could abide when they chose to do so, but the only element of escape from time in these realms was that those who dwelled there did not die.

In China, the closest thing to sacred time as it is understood in many other cultures—that is, as a form of renewal—was the action of the cycles of nature, which included the cycles of human life and death. There was a respect for the functions of time as demonstrated in the cycles of death and rebirth—not of the same entity, but of the same forms. Plants wither and die in winter, but before they do so, they spread seeds that, in spring, grow up to become new plants, which, in turn, release seeds, wither, and die, and so on.

The same is true for the life cycles of animals and humans. One is born, grows, matures, generates seeds, and then the cycle comes to an end; but the seeds that have been created carry on, giving birth to new life, living, then dying, and so on. In this sense, one could say that sacred time is was ordinary time; that is, that sacrality in the process of creation is recognized in the cycles of ordinary life on earth.

What these various notions of what happens after death had in common was an appreciation for this world, for life on earth—whether it was by replicating it as closely as possible in tombs, by seeking to experience it forever as an immortal, or by recognizing the sacred nature of its cycles. When Chan Buddhism began to emerge in China the 7th and 8th centuries, its concept of the sacred within the ordinary represented, in many ways, a return to pre-Buddhist understandings of sacred time. In Chan there was no goal to transcend time or to escape it; if there was a form of transcendence, it was through the recognition of the sacred quality of the present moment.


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