The Simple Past of Be

“The Simple Past of Be

I was riding on the Muni tonight when I glanced over at the book of the passenger next to me and saw this heading on the page. Before any meaning even registered into consciousness, I sighed, my body relaxing into itself.  The words Simple and Be were just what I needed after a long day at the office spent tracking complicated communications across continents and oceans.

My friend Shannon fell so in love with the pleasurable essence of a certain cotton fabric that she bought a hoodie that was unfortunately obscured by the words ABERCROMBIE  AND FITCH appliqued across the front, and, not feeling aligned with the commercial intentions of her purchase, ripped off the letters one by one until all that was left was the BE, relocated to the center.  There, that’s better; although that particular BE seems to have had a rather complicated past actually, so perhaps there is some argument against the premise in my fellow Muni passenger’s book.

I wished to avoid triggering stalker alarms on the Muni, so I used my best peripheral vision to gain on the nature of the phrase in question.  (I get plenty of practice at this, trying to catch the bowing of the person coming to sit next to me in the zendo; this requires interpreting movements of someone at about 120 degrees from straight ahead, and as I see it, if I were meant to see something that far in back of me, I would have been given sideways-facing eyes.  But I make do with my forward-facing eyes, and have learned to cheat liberally when necessary.)

I rather like the poetry of “The Simple Past of Be” even though the book turned out to be about English grammar instead of poetry or philosophy.

Because, IF Be were to have a past, I do think it would be a simple one. That simplicity would be an improvement over complexity, would contain a clarity and peacefulness that only comes when things are as simple as they need to be, and no more.  Be seems like it would roll like that.  A word with only two letters has simplicity in its DNA.

But recent philosophical discussions have lead to more questions about the nature of Be. Always, there is Dogen Zenji, mucking things up:

“Firewood becomes ash.  Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before.  We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off.”

Because this is a translation from Japanese characters to English words, I don’t know if I fully understand the distinction between “before” vs. “past,” and “after” vs. “future,” but I do have a hallucination that this all makes sense to me, that the “before and after” are contained in the dharma position of firewood (or perhaps, Be) and not linearly strung out in a sequence of one condition becoming another the way we conventionally see things moving through time.  So.  Be has a “before” but not a “past.”  What might be in Be’s “before?”

My thoughts about the Simple Past of Be are just a fun story I tell myself on the commute home on a crowded train, but I don’t think this particular delusion is harmful.   It’s like when people use the word Zen when they are not representing anything close to what I think of as Zen practice or Zen philosophy. In popular culture it might be a nice relaxing massage with warm rounded river stones, something that helps you be serene in the midst of stressful chaos, or perhaps a certain Japanese esthetic in clothing or garden paraphernalia.  The Zen I know has been a brutal, gruesome practice of willing myself to face the actual moment of existence in spite of every fiber of my being saying “I” am going to die in the process.  But who is right?  I certainly don’t have a deep understanding of Zen myself, and probably neither view is correct; or they both are.  And as someone once pointed out to me, the popular culture view of Zen is of something positive and inviting – and that’s not a bad thing at all.

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About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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4 Responses to The Simple Past of Be

  1. Wyatt says:

    Your musings on the meaning of Zen reminded me of this quote from
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
    Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
    Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

  2. gretchen says:

    You know, I’ve never seen that one. I’ll have to add it to my queue! thanks for reading…

  3. Tweedle says:

    Just remember, if you had eyes in the side of your head, you would be prey rather than predator.

    • gretchen says:

      That sounds lovely, I’d like to try that! It reminds me of the “giver, receiver, and gift” part of the meal chant – but if the predator is the receiver, is the prey both giver and gift? Regardless, all empty …

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