IT'S ONLY A MATTER OF TIME
I am as childish as the next person when my birth day rolls in as it did last week. I want to glom on to the max. After all, I’ve been forced to patiently stand by for 364 ordinary days to get to feel first class on this day that’s mine, that’s about me: when I came, I saw, I anchored—back alas in the ocean of samsara, déjà vu all over again. Maybe that’s why every moment urgently wants to be fresh, new, a special chance to start over, why my senses seem so awake. Or maybe it’s just because of all days, this day so strongly reminds me impermanence is going to kick in. At midnight the specialness passes to someone else.
Whatever the silly reason, I hate to waste or miss a moment of “my” day. So I was patiently counting down the eve, fighting to stay awake waiting for midnight to strike, when it all of a sudden occurred to me at 10 PM, I was doing this in California. I was three hours behind the East coast time in which I was born. My birthday was already happening!
Well wasn’t this a perfect place to get a grip on the seemingly slippery Madhyamika dialectic about time. What’s the past, the future? Where is now? What is time? Who cares? I was born at 10 PM Philadelphia time, 7 PM San Francisco time and 4 AM the next day Paris time. Did that mean my birthday was over at 9 PM California time on the correct calendar day?
The funny thing is I had just been slogging my way through this emptiness of time logic a few days earlier when my cousin’s ex wife called from the East coast to tell me she’d become a grandmother. “The baby was born today, January 3,” she said. “Oops, no. I said that because I heard this morning that the baby was born at 2:30 AM my time. Actually she was born at 11:30 PM in Palo Alto. So I guess her birthday is really January 2, isn’t it?”
Time certainly is tricky. Every time I fly over the international dateline, I feel like I’m going back to the future. It may be morning in America but it’s already tomorrow in Asia. Last month I left Singapore on Tuesday morning at 9 AM and landed in San Francisco on what the calendar called the same Tuesday morning. Although I got an extra 21 hours thrown in between, I got to live Tuesday all over again, like a segment of the movie Ground Hog Day.
And it’s not just Greenwich Mean Time messing with me. At least since I’ve known him in America, my Nepali heart son has been celebrating his birthday on January 2. For the last decade we’ve had a joint dinner party. A few weeks ago, his cousin who is now here too told us he had the same birthday as my heart son. But as we tried to fix a party date convenient to everyone, it turned out the cousin considered his birthday to be January 10. I’m not sure what got lost in translation, but it seems to relate to the peculiar and unique calendar calculations of Nepalese astrologists that don’t match any other known world system.
This is somewhat in keeping with the confusion that surrounds Rinpoche’s birthday. Since he was born in Tibet and on a lunar based calendar with shorter months and years than our Western solar one, the actual anniversary of his birth is subject to conversion by complicated astronomical algorithms, and thus seems to migrate around the autumn months, like a nomad on the high plain. Sometimes we honor him in late October, other years in early December.
To make this birthday business even harder, Tibetans celebrated Rinpoche’s 75th birthday a year before Westerners did because Rinpoche is thought to be a year older by Tibetan count. Tibetans figure a baby is already one year old the moment it is born, for the consciousness, the karma, has been working that body that long already. So even though I’m up there on the actuarial charts high enough to feel like a contestant in Survivor, my Tibetan friends think me already a year than I think I am.
This scary thought reminds me of the year my aunt tried to make nice and make a little party for my grandmother, with whom she was engaged in lifelong battle. She invited over a dozen or so people and had a cake made saying Congratulations on 86 years! My grandmother eyed that cake and thanked everyone for coming under false pretenses. “I’m 87!” she snarled at my aunt. “You got it wrong.”
A year later my aunt had her comeuppance. As she and my uncle were getting ready to go to Paris to celebrate her 60th birthday, my aunt discovered she’d lost her passport and needed to get a new one, fast. For this she needed a birth certificate, which my grandmother assured her she didn’t have. So my aunt went to City Hall whereupon she discovered that for 59 years she’d been celebrating her birthday on the wrong day. She’d actually been born on July 6, not 7. “Well what do you care?” my grandmother sniped, “you had a birthday, didn’t you?”
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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