Time as a range of mountain peaks, or not

It’s time to play another game of “what would Dogen have really been saying”! Here are your choices:

1. Time is like a mountain range you can look out across; it does not simply recede into the past.

2. Time is not like a mountain range you can look across, fading into the distance.

This, of course, is from Uji , where Dogen writes ã??ã?®æ˜¨ä»Šã?®é?“ç?†ã€?ã?Ÿã? ã?“れ山ã?®ã?ªã?‹ã?«ç›´å…¥ã?—ã?¦ã€?å?ƒå³°ä¸‡å³°ã‚’ã?¿ã‚?ã?¤æ™‚節ã?ªã‚Šã€?ã?™ã?Žã?¬ã‚‹ã?«ã?‚らã?šã€‚

Nearly all translations take the interpretation that time is like a postcard of a mountain range. Nishijima/Cross:

Even so, this Buddhist principle of yesterday and today is just about moments in which we go directly into the mountains and look out across thousand or ten thousands peaks; it is not about what has passed.

This is a serviceable translation, with the minor exception of being wrong. The principle is not about moments where we saw the mountains; it is that past and present are (or are not) the mountain view. More importantly, they reverse (in my opinion) what Dogen is saying about mountains and time.

Tanahashi/Welch somehow manage to mangle this sentence even more badly:

Yet yesterday and today are both in the moment when you directly enter the mountains and see thousands and myriads of peaks. Yesterday’s time and today’s time do not go away.

They completely leave out the word “concept” from the original; transform past and present needlessly into yesterday and today; mistranslate jisetsu as “moments”; have time being “in the moment” rather than “the case of”; and introduce a gratuitous sentence break—a sure sign that their parsing is off. The awkward “thousands and myriad” just adds insult to injury. Someone should take away these guys’ translating license.

But the real question is whether time is, or is not, like the series of mountain peaks. The syntactic problem here is that the Japanese has the structure “doing A, doing B not,” where A is the mountains and B is passing away. This gives rise to an intrinsic ambguity: it could be “(doing A, doing B) NOT” or “doing A, (doing B NOT).”

Beyond the syntax, however, there are a number of clues for us here. First and foremost, Dogen has spent the entire preceding part of the essay telling us precisely that time is not a linear sequence—which is exactly what the range of peaks is! The sentence starts off with a “but” which makes sense only if the sense of the entire sentence is negative. And the word “simply” (J. tada) right at the beginning—which Tanahashi/Welch toss away—pairs naturally with the “not” at the end.

Therefore, I believe that the “not” in the original extends to both time passing away and the view of time as a linear series of mountain peaks. Sorry if you were liking the analogy of past and present as a mountain range.

My translation would be:

But do not conceive of past and present simply as a vista of a innumerable peaks that you look out over from within the mountains, receding off into the distance.

This is somewhat disconcerting. Typically different interpretations might yield a shift in nuance or emphasis. But here they are diametrically opposed. And impeccably credentialed Zen masters and eminent scholars all assure us that Dogen is in fact exhorting us to rush out into the wilderness and gaze on mountain ranges as an excellent analogy for how time works.

What is a student to do? Simply understand the potential issue and make up your own min—assuming the translator deigns to point out the problem to you as I am doing here.

One Response to “Time as a range of mountain peaks, or not”

  1. DavidD Says:

    I don’t suppose Dogen knew how relativity shows time to be just as linear as any spatial dimension. Someone might be tempted to write off this discussion from knowing that, but like many words, “time” can means many things. As a physical entity, there is no question that time is utterly linear, at least anywhere near our existence. Yet time is also an element of our consciousness, and there one can look at different possibilities for time. One I think about a lot is how I forget the vast majority of my life, instead building myself up from a few moments, some of which were contained completely within those moments, some of which were summaries from some long process, the details of which I forget. These can be from long ago or recently – decidedly nonlinear.

    I try to think about possibilities for time in whatever nonphysical world my consciousness might connect with. That’s very hard. There are so many possibilities there, so many things that may be real or may be metaphors, like an afterlife, that are hard to know what to do with.

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