All at Once: A Review of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

By Richard Collins

The philosophical novel or novel of ideas is largely a creation of the eighteenth century, when in Europe “enlightenment” was a secular notion that reason was capable of dissolving the darkness spread by the medieval Church. The eighteenth-century novel of ideas comes in many forms, from Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Sade’s Justine and Juliette. Modern philosophical novels include the works of Dostoevsky and Milan Kundera. And Buddhist novels of ideas include, notably, Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West (c. 1592), Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), and Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982), to name only a few. We can now add Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, 2013).

One could say that all good novels are, broadly speaking, novels of ideas. Every good novel is, after all, “about” something. It may be about how all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, or about how one historical period in two cities could be both the best of times and the worst of times. A true novel of ideas, though, is like an essay that explores its thesis in a concrete narrative. Candide, for example, takes us on a wild ride demolishing Leibniz’s optimistic absurdity that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” By the end of the book, that idea is replaced by another: that given the gratuitous cruelty and senseless waste that Candide experiences firsthand, the best we should hope for in this world is “to tend our own garden.” It’s not bad advice, and it’s not bad Buddhist advice—but that doesn’t make Candide a Buddhist novel.

Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being
The satirical Chinese folk novel Journey to the West, also known as Monkey in the Arthur Waley translation, recounts the monk Xuanzang’s journey along the Silk Road to India to fetch the Mahayana texts of the Tripitaka, including the Heart Sutra, lampooning Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists along the way. More recently Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale combines the virtues of the novel of ideas with the dharma teachings of the graphic narrative of the boy who glimpses, catches, and rides the elusive ox. Johnson’s novel is in dialog with other novels of ideas, including Candide and Siddhartha. With characters reminiscent of Hindu sages, Taoist immortals, and Buddhist bodhisattvas, Johnson draws from those ancient traditions and mixes their ideas with Marxism, deconstruction, and post-colonialism to explore in the end the larger implications of the American slave narrative as a creative means of manumission.

Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being explores how the past affects the present and the present affects the future and sometimes how the future affects the past. The major text against which she explores these ideas is Dogen’s Shobogenzo, especially the fascicle “Uji” or “For the Time Being,” as her title announces. The Western philosophical tradition has tended to assume that we are “beings in time,” separate and essential souls, rather than what Dogen in the Zen tradition has called “time beings,” dependent and contingent not only on other beings but on time itself, our being time itself. As a novelist and Zen priest, Ruth Ozeki wants to know what that dependency and contingency mean for making meaning out of our experience. It is, of course, an existential question, the Great Matter really, and she takes an existential approach, not shying away from the inevitable questions posed by the novel of ideas: why bad things happen to good people (theodicy: the same question that haunted Voltaire and Dostoevsky), and why live rather than die (Sisyphus’s dilemma: the perennial question from Hamlet to Camus and Mishima).

Ozeki is a novelist, however, not a philosopher. Her talent lies not in the answers she provides but the lives she illuminates through the embodied experience of two sets of characters: a suicidal father and his suicidal daughter and a 104-year-old Zen nun in Japan on the western shore of the Pacific Ocean, and a novelist and her botanist husband in British Columbia on the eastern extreme of the same body of water. These “time-beings” are separated by time and space, alienated from one another by an ocean of language and culture, but they are also connected by the very things that separate them. This is one of the primary Buddhist ideas developed in this novel of ideas: the interconnectedness of all things, or “dependent origination.”

Oscar Wilde said that all criticism is a form of autobiography, and maybe all book reviews, because of their brevity, are images seen in inkblots reflecting the reviewer’s preoccupations. We tend to recall—or value—in a book what calls to us. Ozeki’s novel has much that will speak to contemporary concerns, from manga and Hello Kitty culture to bullying and phone apps. But—allowing that I have chosen these themes from my own inkblot reading—a few concerns are timeless and memorable, including: 1) suicide—the existential question par excellence: to be or not to be, specifically worked out through several stages in life, as a schoolgirl’s response to bullying, as a father’s response to economic failure, or as a young man’s response to his role as a kamikaze pilot; 2) warfare—an age-old question honed with a focus on the relationship between warfare and religion, specifically Japanese Buddhism, with the cloud of Brian Victoria’s Zen at War controversy in the background but never explicit; 3) youth and wisdom—another ageless question about what youth has to experience for itself and what wisdom from the experience of age can be passed on from generation to generation, from teacher to student, from parent to child, from master to disciple?

It is the third question that is the focus of the relationship between Nao and her great-grandmother Jiko, the 104-year-old Zen nun. Jiko introduces Nao to zazen, which begins her recovery from a rough adolescence: “Zazen is the kind of meditating they do there [at her great-grandmother’s temple near Sendai], which seems different from the California kind, or at least it seems different to me, but what do I know?” (161). Jiko tells Nao that zazen “probably wouldn’t cure me of all my syndromes and tendencies but it would teach me how not to be so obsessed with them. I don’t know how effective it is, but ever since she taught me how, I try to do it every day—well, maybe every other day, or a couple of times a week—and now that I think about it, even though I still intend to kill myself, I actually haven’t, yet, and if I’m still alive and not dead, maybe it’s working" (162). Seldom do we read a more honest and accurate assessment of zazen, the difficulty of practicing it and the parameters of its effectiveness.

The most powerful moment in the novel, and the one most pertinent perhaps to the title, comes when Nao bathes with Jiko in the ofuro at her temple in Sendai and describes the century-old body as something between ET and a witch—but affectionately, not flinching from her candid reaction of this extraordinary time being in her powerful, layered presence: “part ghost, part child, part young girl, part sexy woman, and part yamamba [mountain hag], all at once. All the ages and stages, combined into a single female time being” (166).

Ozeki has taken one of the most difficult philosophical texts, Dogen’s “Uji” (variously translated as “Being Time,” “Time Being,” or her own “For the Time Being”) and made it accessible in everyday terms by embodying the time-being continuum in a few conflicted characters spinning out their being-in-time along with their own time-and-place settings, while showing how they are connected by ocean currents and moral networks. Objects or sentiments set adrift as the result of tsunamis or world-wide webs connect them—and all of us—through the compassion of the imagination. Caring crosses landscapes and seascapes, spans the gulfs created by languages and cultures, which can be seen as forms of communication that transcend such limits, or a secret code that keeps others from understanding one’s true thoughts.

Who can fathom the real motives of the pacifist kamikaze pilot who keeps his secret diary in French, or the secret suffering of his great niece who keeps her diary in a blank book repurposed from a copy of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu? The answer is, in a sense, the novelist Ruth can, that’s who, who in her “ruthlessness” fathoms their thoughts in her imaginative reconstruction from a collage of objects washed up on the beach. It is this act of compassionate imagination that Ruth experiences a sense of emptiness, a familiar existential crisis, followed by a revelation of peace. Ruth’s experience in the novel is Ruth Ozeki’s gift to us, allowing us our own experience of Dogen’s “being-time.”

The spirit of hope is embodied in the most fully realized “time being” in the novel, the nun Jiko who brings the plots and the themes of the novel together in her wizened body and her wise treatment of Nao. If Jiko is the future, Nao represents the lived being here and now, where our lives are lived and where decisions about the future are made, based on our incomplete knowledge of the past and our faulty interpretations based on that knowledge. In the course of the novel, almost every tentative interpretation is revealed to be inadequate. Each discovery of a new fact, a new detail, a new emotional nuance not revealed in other documents, results in a more complete (but never completed) picture of reality. In each case, we should not despair of never reaching a complete vision of reality because the picture always gets a little clearer, and more importantly, the more we discover, the more we find reasons for hope and compassion.

Ruth, both fictional and real, represents another kind of Nao. Both narrator and novelist, she is neither one nor the other entirely: her self, we might say, is the unsubstantial self of “no self,” its boundaries constantly shifting. The author who reads Nao’s message in a Hello Kitty lunchbox tries to keep up with Nao’s (now’s) message, but it is an increasingly impossible task. Ruth’s impatience and irritability with her feckless husband show us her fallible humanity: nobody’s perfect. As a Zen priest herself, though, Ozeki the novelist is also the old Buddhist nun, a projection perhaps of her future self. In the meantime, Ruth the novelist gives us our own unique “now” through a gripping (and we are often reminded, fictional) narrative. One of the messages of the novel is that these narratives that we construct and are constructed by are very much part of the reality of our time-being, our being-in-time. However, these narratives, like fictional selves, are unsubstantial, shifting, unreliable, and they change as our perspective changes with our experience. This shifting perspective is one of the things the novel as an art form is very good at, the philosophical novel especially: it can take us through the time sequence of being-in-the-world to sharpen that experience in and out of the novel’s imaginary.

Zen poetry is often a snapshot within time, one that reveals time by frustrating its unstoppable flow. Like the photograph (writing in a flash of light, enlightenment literalized), the Zen poem is a thunderclap followed more or less instantaneously by lightening. The novel, on the other hand, uses time’s changes to reveal time’s transformation of form into emptiness, emptiness into form: it takes time to bring darkness to light, and emptiness into form. And not just time, but time beings. This is the real story beneath A Tale for the Time Being.
Richard Collins is a Zen monk, author of No Fear Zen, and teacher in the lineage of Robert Livingston Roshi, Abbot of the New Orleans Zen Temple.


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