ETERNITY is, as a philosopher defines it, “an infinite extent of time, in which every event is future at one time, present at another, past at another.”
This is an interesting definition no doubt, but what is “infinity”? “No beginning and no end?” What is time that has no beginning and no end? Time cannot be defined without eternity nor eternity without time? Is eternity time going on forever in two directions, past-ward and future-ward? Is time eternity chopped to pieces or numbers?
Let us see whether a symbolic representation of eternity is more amenable to our understanding or imagination. What would a poet, for instance, say about it?
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
Henry Vaughan’s lines, as Bertrand Russell points out, are evidently suggested by Plato’s Timaeus in which Plato states:
Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fulness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he [God] resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time, For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.
Further, Plato goes on to say that the heaven and time are so closely knit together that if one should dissolve the other might also be dissolved:
Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together. It was framed after the pattern of the eternal nature, that it might remember this as far as was possible; for the pattern exists from eternity, and the created heaven has been, and is, and will be, in all time.
The heaven is eternity; and “the sun and moon and the five stars” are “the forms of time, which imitate eternity and revolve according to a law of number,” and the moving images of the eternal essence which alone “is” and not subject to becoming. What we see with our sense is not the heaven itself, the original eternal being itself, which is only in God’s mind. If we wish, therefore, “to live in the light of eternity” we must get into God’s mind. “Is this possible?” one may ask. But the question is not the possibility of achieving this end, but its necessity; for otherwise we cannot go on living even this life of ours though bound in time and measurable in days and nights, in months and years. What is necessary, then, must be possible. When the Eternal negated itself to manifest itself in “the forms of time,” it assuredly did not leave the forms helpless all by themselves; it must have entered into them though negated. When the Eternal negated itself into the moving, changing, sensible forms of time, it hid itself in them. When we pick them up, we must see “the shoots of everlastingness” in them. “Was” and “will be” must be in “is.” What is finite must be carrying in it, with it, everything belonging to infinity. We who are becoming in time, therefore, must be able to see that which eternally “is.” This is seeing the world as God sees it, as Spinoza says, “sub specie aeternitatis.”
Eternity may be regarded as a negation as far as human finitude is concerned, but inasmuch as this finitude is always changing, becoming, that is, negating itself, what is really negative is the world itself and not the eternal. The eternal must be an absolute affirmation which our limited human understanding defines in negative terms. We must see the world in this affirmation, which is God’s way of seeing the world, seeing everything as part of the whole. “Living in the light of eternity” cannot be anything else.
B. Jowett, translator of Plato, writes in his introduction to Timaeus:
Not only Buddhism, but Greek as well as Christian philosophy, show that it is quite possible that the human mind should retain an enthusiasm for mere negations. . . . Eternity or the eternal is not merely the unlimited in time but the truest of all Being, the most real of all realities, the most certain of all knowledge, which we nevertheless only see through a glass darkly.
The enthusiasm Jowett here refers to is not “for mere negations” or for things which are “seen only through a glass darkly”; it cannot come out of the human side of finitude; it must issue from eternity itself, which is in the finitude, indeed, and which makes the finitude what it is. What appears to be a mere negation from the logical point of view is really the is-ness of things. As long as we cannot transcend the mere logicality of our thinking, there will be no enthusiasm of any kind whatever in any of us. What stirs us up to the very core of our being must come from the great fact of affirmation and not from negation.
Buddhism is generally considered negativistic by Western scholars. There is something in it which tends to justify this view, as we observe in Nāgārjuna’s doctrine of “Eight No’s”:
There is no birth,
Nor is there death;
There is no beginning,
Nor is there any ending;
Nothing is identical with itself,
Nor is there any diversification;
Nothing comes into existence,
Nor does anything go out of existence.
What he aims at by negating everything that can be predicated of the Dharma (Ultimate Reality) is to bring out thereby what he terms the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not sheer nothingness, it is a something that remains after every possible negation. Its other name is the Unattainable, and the Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra teach the doctrine of the Unattainable. I will try to illustrate what it means in order to clarify the deeper implications of this contradictory statement. I shall repeat the story found in Chapter II.
There was once in the T’ang dynasty in the history of China, a great scholar thoroughly versed in this doctrine. His name was Tokusan (790-865, Tê-shan in Chinese). He was not at all satisfied with the Zen form of Buddhist teaching which was rapidly gaining power, especially in the south of China. Wishing to refute it he came out of Szŭ-ch’uan in the southwestern part of China.
His objective was to visit a great Zen monastery in the district of Li-yang. When he approached it he thought of refreshing himself with a cup of tea. He entered a teahouse by the roadside and ordered some refreshments. Seeing a bundle on his back, the old lady who happened to be the teahouse keeper asked what it was.
Tokusan said, “This is Shoryo’s [Ch’ing-lung’s] great commentary on the Diamond Sūtra [a portion of the great Prajñā-pāramitā-sūtra]-11
“I have a question and if you answer it I shall be glad to serve you the refreshments free of charge. Otherwise, you will have to go elsewhere.”
“What is your question?” the monk asked.
“According to the Diamond Sūtra, ‘The past mind is unattainable, the future mind is unattainable, and the present mind is unattainable.’ If so, what is the mind which you wish to punctuate?”
An explanation is needed here. In Chinese, “refreshments,” t’ien-hsin, literally means “punctuating the mind.” I do not know how the term originated. The teahouse keeper making use of “the mind” associated with “refreshments” quoted the Sūtra in which the mind in terms of time is said to be “unattainable” in any form, either past, present, or future. If this is the case, the monk cannot have any “mind” which he wishes to “punctuate.” Hence her question.
Tokusan was nonplused, because he was never prepared to encounter such questions while studying the Sūtra along the conventional line of conceptual interpretation. He could not answer the question and was obliged to go without his tea. Those who do not know how to transcend time will naturally find it difficult to attain Nirvana which is eternity.
The unattainability of Nirvana comes from seeking it on the other shore of becoming as if it were something beyond time or birth-and-death (samsāra). Nirvana is samsāra and samsārais Nirvana. Therefore, eternity, Nirvana, is to be grasped where time, samsāra, moves on. The refreshments cannot be taken outside time. The taking is time. The taking is something attainable, and yet it goes on in something unattainable. For without this something unattainable all that is attainable will cease to be attainable. This paradoxicality marks life.
Time is elusive, that is, unattainable. If we try to take hold of it by looking at it from the outside, then we cannot even have ordinary refreshments. When time is caught objectively in a serialism of past, present, and future, it is like trying to catch one’s own shadow. This is negating eternity constantly. The unattainable must be gasped from the inside. One has to live in it and with it. While moving and changing, one must become the moving and changing. Emerson in “Brahma” sings of the eternal as “one” in the changing and moving forms of time:
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
Where “the doubter and the doubt” are one, there is Brahma as “the pattern of the eternal nature,” which is God himself. When “the doubter and the doubt” are separated and placed in the serialism of time, the dichotomy cuts into every moment of life darkening forever the light of eternity.
“Living in the light of eternity” is to get into the oneness and allness of things and to live with it. This is what the Japanese call “seeing things sono-mama” 7 in their suchness, which in William Blake’s terms is to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity is an hour.”
To see things as God sees them, according to Spinoza, is to see them under the aspect of eternity. All human evaluation is, however, conditioned by time and relativity. It is ordinarily difficult for us humans “to see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” To our senses, a grain of sand is not the whole world, nor is a wild flower in a corner of the field a heaven. We live in a world of discrimination and our enthusiasm rises from the consideration of particulars. We fail to see them “evenly” or “uniformly” as Meister Eckhart tells us to do, which is also Spinoza’s way, Blake’s way, and other wise men’s way, East and West. Tennyson must have been in a similar frame of consciousness when he plucked a wild flower out of the crannied wall and held it in his hand and contemplated it.
However difficult this way of looking at the world is, the strange thing to most of us, or rather the wonderful thing, is that once in a while we transcend the temporal and relativistic point of view. It is then that we realize that life is worth living, and that death is not the end of all our strivings, and furthermore that what Buddhists call “thirst” (tṛiṣṇā) is more deeply rooted than we imagine, as it grows straight out of the root of karuṇā. 9
Let me cite a Japanese Haiku poet of the eighteenth century, Bashō. One of his seventeen-syllable poems reads:
When closely inspected,
One notices a nazuna in bloom
Under the hedge.
The nazuna is a small flowering wild plant. Even when flowering it is hardly noticeable, having no special beauty. But when the time comes, it blooms, fulfilling all that is needed of a living being as ordered at the beginning of creation. It comes directly from God as does any other form of being. There is nothing mean about it. Its humble glory surpasses all human artificiality. But ordinarily we pass by it and pay not the slightest attention. Bashō at the time must have been strangely impressed by it blooming under a thickly growing hedge, modestly lifting its tender head hardly discernible from the rest. The poet does not at all express his emotions. He makes no allusions whatever to “God and man,” nor does he express his desire to understand “What you are root, and all, and all in all.” He simply looks at the nazuna so insignificant and yet so full of heavenly splendor and goes on absorbed in the contemplation of “the mystery of being,” standing in the midst of the light of eternity.
At this point it is important to note the difference between East and West. When Tennyson noticed the flower in a crannied wall he “plucked” it and held it in his hand and went on reflecting about it, pursuing his abstract thought about God and man, about the totality of things and the unfathomability of life. This is characteristic of Western man.
His mind works analytically. The direction of his thinking is toward the externality or objectivity of things. Instead of leaving the flower as it is blooming in the cranny, Tennyson must pluck it out and hold it in his hand. If he were scientifically minded, he would surely bring it to the laboratory, dissect it, and look at it under the microscope; or he would dissolve it in a variety of chemical solutions and examine them in the tubes, perhaps over a burning fire. He would go through all these processes with anything, mineral or vegetable, animal or human. He would treat the human body’ dead or alive, with the same innocence or indifference as he does a piece of stone. This is also a kind of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity or rather in the aspect of perfect “evenness.”
When the scientist finishes (though the “when” of this is unpredictable) his examination, experimentation, and observation, he will indulge in all forms of abstract thinking; evolution, heredity, genetics, cosmogeny. If he is still more abstract-minded, he may extend his speculative mood to a metaphysical interpretation of existence. Tennyson does not go so far as this. He is a poet who deals with concrete images.
Compare all this with Bashō and we see how differently the Oriental poet handles his experience. Above all, he does not “pluck” the flower, he does not mutilate it, he leaves it where he has found it. He does not detach it from the totality of its surroundings, he contemplates it in its sono-mama state, not only in itself but in the situation as it finds itself-the situation in its broadest and deepest possible sense. Another Japanese poet refers to the wild flowers:
All these wild flowers of the fields
Should I dare touch them?
I offer them as they are
To all the Buddhas in the
Three thousand chiliocosms!
Here is the feeling of reverence, of mystery, of wonderment, which is highly religious. But all this is not expressly given articulation. Bashō simply refers first to his “close inspection” which is not necessarily aroused by any purposeful direction of his intention to find something among the bushes; he simply looks casually around and is greeted unexpectedly by the modestly blooming plant which ordinarily escapes one’s detection. He bends down and “closely” inspects it to be assured that it is a nazuna. He is deeply touched by its unadorned simplicity, yet partaking in the glory of its unknown source. He does not say a word about his inner feeling, every syllable is objective except the last two syllables, “kana.” “Kana” is untranslatable into English, perhaps except by an exclamation mark, which is the only sign betraying the poet’s subjectivity. Of course, a Haiku being no more than a poem of seventeen syllables cannot express everything that went on in Bashō’s mind at the time. But this very fact of the Haiku’s being so extremely epigrammatic and sparing of words gives every syllable used an intensity of unexpressed inner feeling of the poet, though much is also left to the reader to discover what is hidden between the syllables. The poet alludes to a few significant points of reference in his seventeen-syllable lines leaving the inner connection between those points to be filled by the sympathetically or rather empathetically vibrating imagination of the reader.
Western psychologists talk about the theory of empathy or transference of feeling or participation, but I am rather inclined to propound the doctrine of identity. Transference or participation is based upon the dualistic interpretation of reality whereas the identity goes more fundamentally into the root of existence where no dichotomy in any sense has yet taken place. From this point of view, participation becomes easier to understand and may be more reasonable or logical. For no participation is possible where there is no underlying sense of identity. When difference is spoken of, this presupposes oneness. The idea of two is based on that of one. Two will never be understood without one. To visualize this, read the following from Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations:
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial joys; having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels.
Such feelings as these can never be comprehended so long as the sense of opposites is dominating your consciousness. The idea of participation or empathy is an intellectual interpretation of the primary experience, while as far as the experience itself is concerned, there is no room for any sort of dichotomy. The intellect, however, obtrudes itself and breaks up the experience in order to make it amenable to intellectual treatment, which means a discrimination or bifurcation. The original feeling of identity is then lost and intellect is allowed to have its characteristic way of breaking up reality into pieces. Participation or empathy is the result of intellectualization. The philosopher who has no original experience is apt to indulge in it.
According to John Hayward, who wrote an introduction to the 1950 edition of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, Traherne is “a theosopher or visionary whose powerful imagination enabled him to see through the veil of appearances and rediscover the world in its original state of innocence.” This is to revisit the Garden of Eden, to regain Paradise, where the tree of knowledge has not yet begun to bear fruit. The Wordsworthian “Intimations” are no more than our longings for eternity that was left behind. It is our eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge which has resulted in our constant habit of intellectualizing. But we have never forgotten, mythologically speaking, the original abode of innocence; that is to say, even when we are given over to intellection and to the abstract way of thinking, we are always conscious, however dimly, of something left behind and not appearing on the chart of well-schematized analysis. This “something” is no other than the primary experience of reality in its suchness or is-ness, or in its sono-mama state of existence. “Innocence” is a Biblical term and corresponds ontologically to “being sono-mama” as the term is used in Buddhism.
Let me quote further from Traherne whose eternity-piercing eye seems to survey the beginningless past as well as the endless future. His book of “meditations” is filled with wonderful insights born of a profound religious experience which is that of one who has discovered his primal innocence.
Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness? Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. . . .
Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.
My very ignorance was advantageous. I seemed as one brought into the Estate of Innocence. All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious. I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. Everything was at rest, free and immortal, I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either tribute or bread. . . .
All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. . . .
All things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared: which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. . . .
Compared with these passages, how prosaic and emotionally indifferent Zen is! When it sees a mountain it declares it to be a mountain; when it comes to a river, it just tells us it is a river. When Chokei (Chang-ching) after twenty hard years of study happened to lift the curtain and saw the outside world, he lost all his previous understanding of Zen and simply made this announcement:
How mistaken I was! How mistaken I was!
Raise the screen and see the world!
If anybody asks me what philosophy I understand,
I’ll straightway give him a blow across his mouth with my hossu.
Chokei does not say what he saw when the screen was lifted up. He simply resents any question being asked about it. He even goes to the length of keeping the questioner’s mouth tightly closed. He knows that if one even tried to utter a word and say “this” or “that,” the very designation misses the mark. It is like another master’s bringing out before the entire congregation a monk who asked him who Buddha was. The master then made this remark, “Where does this monk want to find Buddha? Is this not a silly question?” Indeed, we are all apt to forget that every one of us is Buddha himself. In the Christian way of saying, this means that we are all made in the likeness of God or, in Eckhart’s words, that “God’s is-ness is my is-ness and neither more nor less.”
It may not be altogether unprofitable in this connection to give another Zen “case” where God’s is-ness is made perceivable in the world of particulars as well as in the world of
absolute oneness. To us the case illustrates the Eckhartian knowledge “that I know God as He knows me, neither more nor less but always the same.” This is knowing things as they are, loving them in their sono-mama state, or “loving justice for its own sake,” 14 that is to say, “loving God without any reason for loving.” Zen may look so remote and aloof from human affairs that between it and Eckhart some may be persuaded to see nothing of close relationship as I am trying to show here. But in reality Eckhart uses in most cases psychological and personalistic terms whereas Zen is steeped in metaphysics and in transcendentalism. But wherever the identity of God and man is recognized the Zen statements as they are given below will be intelligible enough.
Hakuin (1685-1768), a great Japanese Zen master of the Tokugawa era, quotes in his famous book known as Kwai-an-koku
Go (fas. 5) a story of Shun Rofu’s interview with a well-seasoned lay disciple of Zen. Shun (of the Sung dynasty) was still a young man when this interview took place. It was the custom of this lay disciple to ask a question of a new monk-visitor who wanted to enjoy the hospitality of the devoted Zen Buddhist, and the following once took place between him and a new caller:
Q. “How about the ancient mirror which has gone through a process of thorough polishing?”
A. “Heaven and earth are illuminated.”
Q. “How about before the polishing?”
A. “As dark as black lacquer.”
The layman Buddhist was sorry to dismiss the monk as not fully deserving his hospitality.
The monk now returned to his old master and asked:
Q. “How about the ancient mirror not yet polished?”
A. “Han-yang is not very far from here.”
Q. “How about after the polish?”
A. “The Isle of Parrot [Ying-wu] lies before the Pavilion of Yellow Stork [Huang-huo].”
This is said to have at once opened the monk’s eye to the meaning of the ancient mirror, which was the subject of discussion between him and Shun. “The mirror” in its is-ness knows no polishing. It is the same old mirror whether or not it goes through any form of polishing. “Justice is even,” says Eckhart. For “the just have no will at all: whatever God wants, it is all one to them.”
Now Hakuin introduces the following mondo:
A monk asked Ho-un of Rosozan, a disciple of Nangaku Yejo (died 744), “How do we speak and not speak?” This is the same as asking: How do we transcend the law of contradiction? When the fundamental principle of thought is withheld, there will be no thinking of God as Eckhart tells us, “God [who] is in his own creature–not as he is conceived by anyone to be–nor yet as something yet to be achieved–but more as an ‘is-ness,’ as God really is.” What kind of God can this be? Evidently, God transcends all our thought. If so, how have we ever come to conceive of God? To say God is “this” or “that” is to deny God, according to Eckhart. He is above all predicates, either positive or negative. The monk’s question here ultimately brings us to the same form of quandary.
Ho-un of Rosozan, instead of directly answering the monk, retorted, “Where is your mouth?”
The monk answered, “I have no mouth.” Poor monk! He was aggressive enough in his first questioning, for he definitely demanded to get an answer to the puzzle: “How could reality be at once an affirmation and a negation?” But when Ho-un counterquestioned him, “Where is your mouth?” all that the monk could say was, “I have no mouth.” Ho-un was an old hand. Detecting at once where the monk was, that is, seeing that the monk was still unable to transcend the dichotomy, Ho-un pursued with “How do you eat your rice?”
The monk had no response. (The point is whether he had a real understanding of the whole situation.)
Later Tozan, another master, hearing of this mondo, gave his own answer: “He feels no hunger and has no need for rice.”
“One who feels no hunger” is “the ancient mirror” that needs no polishing, is he who “speaks and yet speaks not.” He is “justice” itself, the justice is the suchness of things. To be “just” means to be sono-mama, to follow the path of “everyday consciousness,” “to eat when hungry and to rest when tired.” In this spirit I interpret Eckhart’s passage: “If I were perpetually doing God’s will, then I would be a virgin in reality, as exempt from idea-handicaps as I was before I was born.”“Virginity” consists in not being burdened with any forms of intellection, in responding with “Yes, yes” when I am addressed by name. I meet a friend in the street, he says, “Good morning,” and I respond, “Good morning.” This will again correspond to the Christian way of thinking: “If God told an angel to go to a tree and pick off the caterpillar, the angel would be glad to do it and it would be bliss to him because it is God’s will.”
A monk asked a Zen master, “I note an ancient wise man saying: ‘I raise the screen and face the broad daylight; I move the chair and am greeted by the blue mountain.’ What is meant by ‘I raise the screen and face the broad daylight’?”
The master said, “Please pass me the pitcher there.”
“What is meant by ‘I move the chair and am greeted by the blue mountains’?”
“Please put the pitcher back where it was found.” This was the answer given by the master.
All these Zen mondo may sound nonsensical and the reader may come to the conclusion that when the subject is “living in the light of eternity” they are altogether irrelevant and have no place in a volume like this. It is quite a natural criticism from the point of view of an ordinary man of the world. But let us listen to what Eckhart, one of the greatest mystics in the Christian world, states about the “now-moment” which is no other than eternity itself:
The now-moment in which God made the first man, and the now-moment in which the last man will disappear, and the now-moment in which I am speaking are all one in God, in whom there is only one now.
I have been reading all day, confined to my room, and feel tired. I raise the screen and face the broad daylight. I move the chair on the veranda and look at the blue mountains. I draw a long breath, fill my lungs with fresh air and feel entirely refreshed. I make tea and drink a cup or two of it. Who would say that I am not living in the light of eternity? We must, however, remember that all these are events of one’s inner life as it comes in touch with eternity or as it is awakened to the meaning of “the now-moment” which is eternity, and further that things or events making up one’s outer life are no problems here.
I quote again from Eckhart’s Sermon 18:
In eternity, the Father begets the Son in his own likeness. “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” Like God, it had his nature. Furthermore, I say that God has begotten him in my soul. Not only is the soul like him and he like it, but he is in it, for the Father begets his Son in the soul exactly as he does in eternity and not otherwise. He must do so whether he will or not. The Father ceaselessly begets his Son and, what is more, he begets me not only as his Son but as himself and himself as myself, begetting me in his own nature, his own being. At that inmost Source, I spring from the Holy Spirit and there is one life, one being, one action. All God’s works are one and therefore He begets me as he does his Son and without distinction.
Is this not a strong bold saying? But there is no denying its absolute truth. Yet we must not forget that the truth of Eckhart’s sermon comes from setting ourselves in the light of eternity. As long as we are creatures in time and seeking our own and not God’s will, we shall never find God in ourselves. When references are made to Christian symbolism such as “God,” “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit,” “begetting,” and “likeness,” the reader may wonder in what sense Buddhists are using these terms. But the truth is that symbols are after all symbols and when this inner signification is grasped they can be utilized in any way one may choose. First, we must see into the meaning and discard all the historical or existential encumbrances attached to the symbols and then we all, Christians as well as Buddhists, will be able to penetrate the veil.
The Biblical God is said to have given his name to Moses on Mount Sinai as “I am that I am.” This is a most profound utterance, for all our religious or spiritual or metaphysical experiences start from it. This is the same as Christ’s saying, “I am,” that is, he is eternity itself, while Abraham is in time, therefore, he “was” and not “is.” Those who live in the light of eternity always are and are never subjected to the becoming of “was” and “will be.”
Eternity is the absolute present and the absolute present is living a sono-mama life, where life asserts itself in all its fullness.