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.
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.