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Posts Tagged ‘Hito’

A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion.

Impermanence

Impermanence is a fact of life. Even the most cursory observation of the world around us is enough to confirm that all conditioned things are subject to change, including those we most cherish. Likewise that world of thought and feeling known as the inner life. It, too, is subject to what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Yet, despite this general recognition, expressed in such common adages as “all things change” or “this, too, will pass,”’ one important aspect of the law of impermanence often goes unheeded.

That aspect is the continuous, moment-by-moment nature of change and transformation. It is one thing to stop from time to time and note how an object of attention has altered—how, for example, the faces of our children and grandchildren have defined themselves, or how their minds have matured. It is quite another to recognize and continuously acknowledge that, as Zen teachings put it, every moment is a birth and a death. Toward that end, a silent, continuously moving second hand is both a useful instrument and a stern reminder. It dispels false notions of permanence and banishes illusions of control.  And, like the evening prayer posted in Zen monasteries, it implores us not to squander our lives.

Yardsticks

In his book Living by Vow, the Soto Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura observes that most of us apply our personal yardsticks to our experience. We impose human metrics upon the fluid, boundless realities we encounter. In the same way that an ordinary ticking clock calibrates the time it is telling—one pulse, one tick per second—we, too, impose our fixed standards upon the flux of experience. By circling the perimeter of a clock face, not stopping to mark each unit of time, an incessantly moving second hand reminds us that the twelve established numbers and the sixty second-marks of the clock face are imposed, conventional measures. Beyond their artifice lies the reality: the unmeasured, uninterrupted flow of time.

This is an important reminder, not least because it mimics the way in which our conditioned expectations, habitual judgments, and self-centered thoughts govern our perceptions of the world. As Shohaku Okumura remarks, we cannot discard our yardsticks. We need them to navigate the world, and they are all we have. But with practice and awareness we can come to see their limitations, and we can let them go. And “when we live in this way,” Okumura notes, “without attachment to objects or to our conditioned way of viewing and judging things, the lotus flower can bloom in our lives.”

The Present Moment

For centuries, Zen teachings have admonished us to return to the present moment. To practice Zen, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh asserts, is to be “present for the present moment.”

Yet, as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, observes in his Genjokoan, the so-called present moment is no more than a “geometrical line” that separates the past and the future.  That line has no width, length, or intrinsic existence. It is not a unit of time. A silent second hand, coursing rapidly and relentlessly past the second marks, vividly represents that reality.  But, as Okumura notes in his book Realizing Genjokoan, “reality unfolds only within this present moment.” If we truly wish to be present for our unfolding lives, we must endeavor to be present for that ungraspable moment. Such is the aim, the challenge, and the ultimate reward of Zen practice.

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 Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 128.

Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan (Wisdom, 2010), 120.

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