Like many people who are blessed with material abundance, I have more books than I have time to read them. I was so gratified when I recently learned of the Japanese word tsundoku, which loosely translated means “books piling up faster than you can read them.” The idea is that owning lots of unread books can be a sign of curiousity and intellectual humility: knowing that there is more knowledge out there than you can ever fully digest.
It might just be a rationalization for all of us bibliomaniacs, but I’ll take it.
I bring this up because I want to mention a book in my library that, as yet, remains unread. The title alone is noteworthy: it’s called Each Moment is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time by Dainin Katagiri. It’s a commentary on a 13th-century Zen Buddhist text about the nature of time, exploring how time is not a commodity (we talk about “saving” or “spending” time), but rather an essential component of existence. Time, like space, is a dimension of reality, the container in which we “live and move and have our being.”
One of these days I’ll get around to reading Katagiri’s book, but in the meantime its provocative title reminds me of another book that I have read: The Cloud of Unknowing. One of the more charming aspects of that medieval manual on contemplative prayer is its use of the word “atom.”
When I think of an atom I think of the smallest, most basic unit of matter: the building block of the elements. Different atoms make up the difference between hydrogen, helium, lithium, and so forth. But for the anonymous author of The Cloud, an atom is not the smallest unit of matter but the smallest unit of time.
Some people believe contemplation is time-consuming, but it’s not. In fact, it takes less time than anything else you’ll ever do. It’s as brief as an atom, which excellent philosophers in the science of astronomy define as the smallest particle of time. An atom’s littleness makes it indivisible, nearly inconceivable, and also invaluable. On this subject, it has been written, “Every moment of time is a gift to you, and one day you’ll be asked how you spent each one.”
What is the Cloud-author saying? Each moment of time is a gift. Each tiniest moment of time, he goes on to say, is enough time for the human will to act.
Now, connect that to the title of Katagiri Roshi’s book: Each moment of time is the universe: it contains all things. In each moment we can act, we can choose, we can direct our will. In a single moment we can fall in love with God. In each moment, we are available to receive the grace of contemplation.
This has beautiful implications for Centering Prayer. In The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault suggests that “the real work of Centering Prayer is to lay the inner foundations for an entirely different kind of spiritual attentiveness.” She goes on to say “the purpose of Centering Prayer is to deepen your relationship with God (and at the same time your own deepest self) in that bandwidth of formless, objectless awareness that is the foundation of nondual consciousness.”
In the words, Centering Prayer teaches us a new way of seeing, of knowing, of attentiveness, of awareness. Moment by moment, breath by breath, by each glimmer of silence between thoughts, we are invited into that expansive place where silence, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, ushers us in to the very presence of God — perceived only nondually, without subject or object, in that spacious openness Bourgeault calls “objectless awareness.”
Centering Prayer invites us to deepen our relationship with God. But how can we “deepen” what is the most intimate reality of our lives already? Centering Prayer does not make our connection with God deeper than it already was — rather, it opens us up to the Divine reality that is already there.
And it only takes a moment for us to behold what is always, already present.
Every moment of Centering Prayer is an invitation into the very heart of God — or, perhaps better said, an invitation to recognize the heart of God, in which our lives are already immersed. Each moment is the universe, but also each moment is eternity — for just like the erstwhile atom, what is the smallest unit of space is also, simultaneously, the smallest unit of time.
Every moment of prayer is also heaven — for what is heaven, other than the “container” in which we meet the presence of God? For that matter, your heart is heaven (see Romans 5:5), your breath is heaven, your body is heaven.
This also reminds me of Thomas Merton’s concept of le point vierge, which he writes about in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.
Between Merton, Katagiri, Bourgeault, and The Cloud, the common thread seems to be this: the present moment is the heart of all things: it’s the only place we will ever meet the God who loves us. But because it is just a single moment: an “atom” of time, there is not enough time to get all worked up about it. We do not achievethe present moment: but with every breath, with every return of our attention to silence, with every return to the sacred word, we are invited once again to receiveit.
To receive the universe. To receive heaven, and eternity. To receive the gift of the eternal now. To receive the grace of objectless awareness. To receive the presence of God.
As I write these words, I’m struck by the irony of it — for I’m using words (thoughts) to point us to that which lies beyond all thought. Even the most elevated concept or erudite strand of mystical theology just gets in the way, or pulls us away from the gift of the silent. Which is why we return to the sacred word, for it in turn invites us back into the moment.
Hmmm. One of these days I really must read Katagiri’s book. If I can get so much out of a book’s title, who knows what treasures may be found within?
This article originally appeared in Contemplative Outreach News, Vol. 36, Number 2 (June 2019)
Butcher, Carmen Acevedo. The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translation(p. 13). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (p. 16). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
ibid., p. 40.
Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Classics) (p. 155). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.