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Religion Library: Zen

Sacred Time

Written by: Julia Hardy

Because Japan had no written language prior to the arrival of Buddhism, and because the earliest written texts served an overt political agenda, it is difficult to know what pre-Buddhist ideas of sacred time might have been in Japan. Ideas of the kami, the sacred spirits of nature, undoubtedly preceded Shinto, but any pre-existing concept of sacred time was overwritten when these texts were recorded. Still, there are elements within these recorded myths that are clearly related to the concept of renewal within nature.

Native Chinese ideas of the cycles of nature were adopted in Japan along with Buddhism, and, as in China, the notion of Buddha-nature within all things was basic to Japanese Zen. One of the most profound expressions of sacred time in Japanese Zen comes from Soto Zen founder Dogen. Instead of stating that everything has Buddha-nature, Dogen said that everything is Buddha-nature.

Dogen also said that everything is time. The Buddha is time; water is time; a kitten, a blade of grass, and a pebble are time. He called this "being-time." Each moment is the universe; each moment contains all the potentiality of all of existence. Moments are impermanent, however; they are not static, like frozen snapshots. Events are actions; they flow, but they do not proceed from one another in a linear sense. Past flows into future, but equally, the future flows into the past.

Likewise, cause and effect are not related in a linear sense. Each event contains within it both cause and effect. Each moment is a complete whole, a single dynamic activity that is unique and sufficient unto itself, but at the same time is interconnected with every other moment. According to Dogen the realization of this interconnectedness leads to the recognition that all things are rooted in cosmic compassion, which is the ground of being. The realization of this cosmic compassion emerges from the practice of Zen meditation, a rigorous activity that harmonizes all the elements of one's being.

The notion of sacred time that derives from this kind of thinking is not a transcendent time. It is very different from the nirvana-samsara concept, in that there is nothing to escape, no "other" time to aim toward. It is a perception, or realization, of the sacred nature of ordinary time. Finally, it is important to note that there is a sense of sacred time associated with rituals and festivals at temples; as is the case in many religious traditions, such times are set apart, marked as significant, and thus have a sense of sacrality attached to them.

Study Questions:
1.     How was sacred time viewed before Buddhism? In Taoism?
2.     How does nature exemplify sacred time?
3.     Should sacred time be described as linear, or cyclical? Why?
4.     Describe the relationship between sacred time and transcendence.


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