Last night, all across the world, people were acutely aware of the time. 60 more minutes until 2009. 25 more minutes. Only three minutes left to the year . . .
Until the big moment, midnight, and the calendar flipped from December 31, 2008 to January 1, 2009. And at that moment, most celebrants were aware of the time, right then, right there.
Awareness of the present moment is a good thing. We're always in the present, but our thoughts drift back to the past or fantasize about the future. It's always right now, but we don't always realize it.
Last night, at the Zen Center, we counted down to midnight by reciting the 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination, one each minute until midnight. "Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the steadfast mind is not broken," at began at 10:12 p.m.
At 11:11, we chanted, "The faculty of effort is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we thoroughly attain many kinds of wisdom."
And so on, until "The state in which water is sprinkled on the head is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, following birth in a family, we are at last able to realize anuttara-samyak-sambodhi," at Midnight.
Full awareness of each of the last 108 minutes of 2008.
(The mathematically minded among you might want to state that if we started at 10:12, we'd finish 108 verses at 11:59 p.m., with one minute still to go before midnight. However, for some reason, there are actually 109 verses to the 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination - one verse is stated twice in slightly different ways. So take that, Mr. or Ms. Smarty Pants!)
Another practice at the Center that I like is the striking of a bell every 15 minutes when a talk is being given. Upon hearing the bell, the speaker stops talking, takes a breath, acknowledges the present moment, and only then resumes speaking. It avoids us getting too caught up in intellectualization and forgetting of the here and now.
There are several similar devices that can be used to return our attention to the present moment. An ex-girlfriend and I used to always point out the clock to each other at either 1:11 or 11:11, a.m. or p.m. It didn't matter, as long as the time was being presented on the ever-present digital clock (on the t.v., on the microwave, on a tabletop, on the computer, or on our wrists) as nothing but a series of straight lines. "Look what time it is," one of us would say to the other if we were the first to notice. It stated as a silly thing, a running joke, but to this day I still bow in gassho whenever I notice that it's either 1:11 or 11:11, a.m. or p.m., even though the relationship with the ex- ended more than 10 years ago.
So today is the first day of the new year, the 18th hour of the first day of the new year, the 28th minute of the 18th hour of the first day of the new year. And although it's always "right now," this moment will never occur again, ever. We should cherish it.
Oh, look: Here comes another.