a tale for the time being

Today was a beautiful day. I’m so grateful for not having to work on this public holiday. After waking up feeling well rested, I was able to settle back in bed, breakfast bun in one hand and a book in the other, lounging and reading for the next few hours without any distractions, getting up every so often to refill my bottle of tea and to pee. 😉 That, to me, is a glorious holiday.

I was able to reread one of my favourite novels, A Tale for The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’d originally read this book a few years ago when I was in Japan with my family on holiday. I remember being so riveted to it that every night after dinner, I couldn’t wait to just retire back to the room I shared with my sis in order to drink tea and continue the story, even while my mum and sis went on to the onsen after dinner. Looks like not much has changed eh?

It’s a mesmerizing story, of a teenage girl in Tokyo, Nao, who has written a diary that the protagonist, Ruth, living in a small island off British Columbia happens to pick up along the beach when it’s purportedly washed ashore a few years after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. Ruth reads Nao’s diary and learns about her life – her experiences of being bullied as a transfer student having moved from the U.S. back to Japan after her computer programmer father gets laid off, having to deal with her father who attempts suicide back in Japan, her interactions with her 104 year old radical, feminist Zen Buddist monk of a great-grandmother, Jiko, who changes her and shows her her ‘supapawa’ (superpower!) over the summer, Nao’s deceased granduncle Haruki who was conscripted to become a Kamikaze pilot during WWII and whose letters she ends up reading along with the diary, the connection between them starts to deepen and change in ways unexpected. There is a strong theme of quantum physics that runs through the book as well, and as Ruth’s husband explains to her about how observing a quantum event affects the outcome of that event, her reading Nao’s diary effects Nao’s life in mystical ways.

That’s all I can say for now because it’s truly beautiful and you should read it.

Amazingly, Ruth Ozeki is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and she introduces a couple of Zen Buddhist concepts throughout the book, largely from the 13th century Zen master, Dōgen, about time and “moments”.

Here’s a beautiful passage from the Appendix of the story, when Ruth (the protagonist) further elaborates on some of the concepts in the story. This one is on Zen moments:


“A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.”

Please try it, she said. Did you snap? Because if you did, that snap equals sixty-five moments.

“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98, 463, 077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98, 463, 077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.

She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.

That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.

And just like that, you die.”

Is that not fascinating? I’m pretty sure when I read the novel the first time, I’d found it interesting but it didn’t resonate with me as much as it did this second time that I read it. Plus, I really like the quote inserted in the book by Marcel Proust.

“In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.”

If like me, you’re slightly fascinated by the concept of Zen Moments, here’s another quote from the novel, on how Dōgen, in Chapter 86 of his Shōbōgenzō , ‘praises his young monks for their commitment to a path of awakening.’

“His point is that every single one of those moments provides an opportunity to reestablish our will. Even the snap of a finger, he says, provides us with sixty-five opportunities to wake up and to choose actions that will produce beneficial karma and turn out lives around.”

Makes you feel emboldened doesn’t it? That in the span of a snap of a finger, there are 65 opportunities to do something about our lives. Each moment, every moment. All the time. For the time being.

(Now I’m starting to talk like the grand-grandmotherly character Jiko in the novel! But I do recommend reading it because it’s a wonderful piece of literature, beautifully written. There’s an audiobook version read by the author herself! 😀 Just discovered it and can’t wait to listen to it. There’s just something about the intimacy of hearing an author’s voice reading out her work. You know that that’s exactly how she pictured it in her mind to be conveyed to readers.)

I couldn’t recommend it more. Especially on the cusp of the new year.



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