Originally a koan usually attributed to the Japanese Zen monk Takuan. The version in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones goes like this:

A lord asked Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others.

Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.

This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.

The poem's lines are in the classic four-character yojijukugo format, perhaps slightly better known in Chinese as chengyu. The third and fourth lines are a gloss added by the translator, not a part of the original.

The title of this node sounds like a famous modern Chinese saying,
"an inch of gold is too little to buy an inch of time."
(In Chinese: cun4-jin1 nan2-mai3 cun4-guang1-yin1)

There are many variants on this saying in the old books and predating the beautiful Zen koan quoted by gn0sis. The Han dynasty collection Huainanzi puts it like this:

In the turning of time back and forth
the gaps are not enough to draw breath in.
Too soon and you've gone too far;
too late, and you can't catch up.

Now, the moon revolves as the sun retires,
and the hours do not travel alongside humankind.
Therefore the sage does not consider a foot of jade worth money,
but values an inch of time
.

This is because time is easy to lose though hard to obtain.
An "inch of time" is not just a poetic expression, but must refer to a measurable distance on the clepsydra or the sundial.

A later saying (6th century) has this thought:

"An inch of time is like a year." cun4-yin1 ruo4 sui4

Other Chinese literary allusions

In California, jade is the daughter of the sea, washing onto the beach from vast offshore deposits. Each pebble bears the family resemblance, being green like the Pacific, with lines of foam-white running through it, like the spume of long breaking waves seen from above.

In California, jade is the daughter of the mountains, mined and polished, carven by a thousand artists. There, too, is the family resemblance, the stone forest-green like the wooded slopes, brushed with fog-white, like mist rising from the river valley in the morning.

In California, jade is the mother of memory. It is made into earrings, seen in Chinatown at a price beyond the poverty of youth, bought anyway and given out of love, still worn decades later, never regretted. It nestles in silver in a ring, chosen above diamonds to mark an engagement, becoming a plaything for the fat-fingered child ten years later. And the family resemblance carries on in loves as durable as stone, lives as rich as the deep, deep green of the jade that we treasure.


For my mother.

Jade is to be found among the lesser rocks on certain beaches south of Big Sur, California. Several shops in the area, in fact, have jade boulders on display. There is apparently a big jade deposit somewhat offshore, pieces of which are washed in by the sometimes violent surf.

I myself have a piece as big as my fist: heavy, dense, deep deep green veined with black, enticingly smooth. It sits on my desk glowing mysteriously. Once I found a perfectly translucent piece about the size and shape of a silver dollar; I made it into a pendant, irregular and smooth, just as it was when I found it.

Here's how you look for jade on the beach:

  1. Because the waves have sorted the rocks on the beach by size, if you want to find a little piece of jade, look among the little rocks. If you want to find a big piece of jade, look among the big rocks. Always, so much of what you find depends on where you look.
  2. The jade will not glow on the beach. Like all the other rocks, it's coated with sand and salt. Be discerning.
  3. The beach you're looking for is not the one called "Jade Beach." The best place is actually several miles down the coast. Highway signs often mislead.
  4. Jade is much harder than steel. If a rock can be scratched with a pocket knife it's serpentine, not jade. Real treasure cannot be marred by base tools.
  5. There is always plenty of jade on the beach. If you're not finding any today, search your head and heart more deeply before you go back to looking at the rocks.
  6. The surfers say that every seventh wave is the big one. Keep your eye on the sea.
  7. Let this wu stand in honor of evilrooster.

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