Most year-end commentaries suffer from the predictability of commencement speeches, owing to the sheer number that are published, and the limited commentary that is possible in addressing, year after year, the same dynamic of a turning point in the cultural context. It becomes nearly impossible to say anything that has not been said before.
January is the month named after the Roman god Janus, as Wikipedia summarizes for us:
In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus (Latin: Ianus) is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The month of January was named in honor of Janus by the Romans.
Janus is an appropriate symbol at this time of year, when many pause to consider the past, and make resolutions for the coming year, or at least the coming week. In the dharma dialog at Zen center last Sunday, we discussed the tradition of making New Year resolutions in the context of the Precepts of Buddhism, and on Monday sat up from 7:30 until midnight, reciting Master Dogen's 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination, one stanza with each of 108 gongs, ending at midnight. If you missed it, try again next year.
When we compare the tradition of making resolutions with observance of the Precepts, we see that they suffer from the same weakness: the Precepts are impossible to fulfill.
The best we can hope for is that over time, repeatedly re-vowing to follow them, their true meaning will sink in, and we will see that they are indeed all fulfilled in zazen, as Master Dogen indicates. Likewise, any resolution we may make may be doomed to failure, but we can simply resolve to continue in the face of failure. "Fall down seven times, get up eight." Or at least seven.
In Zen, it is an easy default position to question the meaning of such social memes and their embedment in conceptual thinking. It is somewhat useful to point out that on some absolute level, they break down in terms of logic, though they may remain meaningful on a relativistic level. For example, the fact that January 1 does not have a definitive corollary anywhere in existence, other than by agreement in the human community. And even then, it does not occur at the same time in any two time zones on the planet.
While this line of thinking is a bit too facile, and side-steps the social significance of such memes, it does have some utility. Looking at taken-for-granted things from the outside can have the freeing effect of mitigating against peer pressure writ large, e.g. to join in a rather mindless celebration of what once had some relevance to the agrarian society in which it arose. What if the ancients had decided, instead, that the beginning of the year would better be placed in March, for example, when the warmth of spring begins teasing the new growth out of the landscape? Would we as obligingly and unquestioningly celebrate the New Year on March 1?
Considering the absolute, abstract and arbitrary, nature of the markings of time in our calendar can further lead to a re-evaluation of how we participate in reinforcing them as a reality in our own life, and perhaps have a liberating effect on our time. Eventually, such flexibility of mind may reveal something of the true nature of time (or the lack of it) on a personal level. Calling into question the absurdity of a definitive turning point in the cycle of the seasons prompts a questioning of other dimensions of time so glibly accepted as real, and determinative of how we spend our days and nights in vain (See: Sandokai).
For example, if the year is in question, then so is the month; the week; certainly the cherished weekend; the day; and even dayparts such as day versus night. Morning, afternoon, and evening also all become suspect. As this is so, the hour and half- or quarter-hour, the minute and the second fall away as well, not to mention the fraction-of-a-second otherwise known as a moment. So we find ourselves at the beginning point of real time, up close and personal.
Real time, in Zen, is the present moment. But this is not the moment as conceived in the above scenario, as the reductio ad final particle of time. Far from it. The smallest particle of time in Zen is the chronon in modern parlance, ksana in Sanskrit. An unimaginably brief flash of time, in which everything in the universe arises, abides, changes and decays at such a high frequency that it is imperceptible, much like the refresh rate of a computer monitor or a television screen. (See Master Dogen's Hotsu Bodaishin—Establishment of the Bodhi Mind)
So, what is the point of this dissertation, if not to simply divert attention from the meaning of social constructs of measured time?
If we are to make a resolution in the context of Zen practice, it is to "persevere in the way that leads directly to your original nature...become one with the wisdom of the Buddhas and succeed to the awakening of the Ancestors" (from Master Dogen's Fukanzazengi).
By reducing any consideration of the New Year, and any resolutions that we may make redirecting and renewing our behaviors and habit-patterns in a more productive way, instead of conceiving of the actualization of those intentions as a linear projection in time, we can bring them into the present moment by a focus on intimacy, instead. Here—just here in the present of this time and space—is where the resolution is to be accomplished.
Here-now is the only time in which to take action, the only space that allows the manifestation of our true intent. The outward appearance of our behavior is not so important as the inner truth of its meaning. Like Janus, we are capable of looking not only forward and backward in time—which is an illusion based on linearity—but inward and outward at the same time—which is an illusion based on duality.
According to Zen, what it is that is "I" is continually emerging in the present moment, always becoming in the next moment; which is, disorientingly, also the present moment. In the same moment, everything in the universe has changed; there is no linearity here. The enormity of what is actually pointed at as a "year" collapses our puny concept of 2012 into nothing in retrospect, while exploding anticipation of 2013 into an infinity. The very difference in our imagining of the past versus the future illustrates the paucity of clarity that we have about this reality. It also, and tragically, distracts from the miraculous nature of the ordinary spacetime in which we actually exist, rendering it mundane in the poverty of our imagination.
"If you wish to realize the Buddha's wisdom, begin training immediately," as Dogen admonishes us in FKZZG. This immediacy is Zen's intimacy, so close in space and time as to be inseparable from self. If you would like to train with us, please join the Monday evening Skype conferences this month, when we will be studying the mystery of time:
January 7, 14, 21, 28
Dogen: Uji - The Time Being (p. 143 N&C/ p. 106 SA); Existence Time Matsuoka: Every Moment is Zen. July 12, 1964. P. 102-106