Artisans and artists whose work is an attempt to express the inexpressible will often speak about their practice as a settling into the moment, a relaxing in the now, or even as a dissolving into wild unknowingness – and creating from that far side. Years ago I came upon a way to explore the intimate and fleeting moment; I began painting the exhalation of my breath. I reckoned that the length of one exhalation – as laid down in one simple brushstroke – was a pretty good portrait of a moment in my life, and a measure of my essential ‘beingness’.
But when I read Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, I had to rethink my moments. Turns out that in the Zen view of time one exhalation of my breath would amount to not one, but hundreds of moments. In a revealing note at the end of the book (Appendix A: Zen Moments) Ozeki fleshes out the Zen view of time. It’s mind-scrambling, like most things Zen:
The Zen nun Jiko Yasutani once told me in a dream that you can’t understand what it means to be alive on this earth until you understand the time being, and in order to understand the time being, she said, you have to understand what a moment is.
In my dream I asked her, What on earth is a moment?
A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.
When I looked it up afterward, I discovered that this was the exact number cited by Zen Master Dōgen in his masterwork, the Shōbōgenzō (The treasury of the True Dharma Eye).
Numerals resist the eye, so let me spell it out in words: six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty. That’s how many moments Zen Master Dōgen posited are in one day, and after she rattled off the number, old Jiko snapped her fingers. Her fingers were crazily bent and twisted with arthritis, so she wasn’t very good at snapping, but somehow she got her point across.
Please try it, she said. Did you snap? Because if you did, that snap equals sixty-five moments.
The granularity of the Zen view of time becomes clear if you do the math*, or you can just take Jiko’s word for it. She leaned forward, adjusting her black-framed glasses on her nose and peering through the thick murky lenses, and then she spoke once more.
If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.
That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.
And just like that, you die.
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Will I ever be able to look at the paintings of the Western Desert artists the same way again? If one fingersnap equals sixty-five moments, surely one dot would amount to something similar. So, how many moments are portrayed in a work like this one above, by Willy Tjungurrayi? Or the one below, by Lily Kelly Napangardi?
I know this much – one of my exhaled breathstrokes is equal to around seven fingersnaps. That means each complete painting portrays many days’ worth of moments. Was I present at every miracle moment? I doubt it.
But something in me suspects that those Aboriginal artists were, and are, and that they would agree 100% with old Jiko, and Zen Master Dōgen.
want to step so quickly
over a beautiful line on God’s palm
as I move through the earth’s
I do not want to touch any object in this world
without my eyes testifying to the truth
that everything is
Something has happened
to my understanding of existence
that now makes my heart always full of wonder
I do not
want to step so quickly
over this sacred place on God’s body
that is right beneath your
Translation by Daniel Ladinsky
See more at Poetry Chaikhana
* 1 fingersnap = 65 moments and 6,400,099,980 moments = one day, so 6,400,099,980 divided by 65 = 98,463,077 fingersnaps per day.