(NOTE: There is no audio for this talk.)
I am going to talk tonight about case 43 of the Blue Cliff Record—Dongshan’s Hot and Cold. Before reading and discussing the case, I want to give you a little backround information about my practice with koans. Until recently, the best way to describe my work with koans was mostly avoidance. I would read a case and at best, have a slight glimmer of understanding—frequently, I had no idea about what was being discussed. When I did have some understanding, I would read the koan a few days later and I usually could not find the part I thought I understood. It just disappeared.
Several years ago, Norman Fischer gave talks on all 100 cases in the Blue Cliff Record. Many of the talks were given in Bellingham and they were quite detailed. We have tapes and CD’s of quite a few of those talks and I remember listening carefully to one talk and when I looked at the book while listening to the tape, several things made sense. About a week later, I read the same case without the tape and I didn’t get it. Whatever understanding I had was completely gone. I got tired of that continuing to happen, so I gave up koans and stuck to more contemporary writers like Pema Chodren, Joko Beck and Stephen Batchelor. There is so much being written now it is easy to find things to read in newer books and magazines like Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma.
In the last 2 years, I have felt like trying to do more reading of traditional texts, like various Dogen writings, the Lotus Sutra, and giving koans another try. This time around, I have been more tolerant of not understanding things. Reading these old stories has helped me be more able to appreciate the effort being made by students and teachers to reach a deeper experience of the real nature of our lives and how to live them. And, I feel like there is value in just making a long patient effort and not being so concerned about the result. Isn’t that what our practice is anyway? A long patient effort without too much emphasis on accomplishment. One way I work with koans now is to take a few words that represent the problem presented in the koan—in this case, “hot and cold” and just think about them from time to time during the day—especially if something is happening that touches on what the koan is about. With that change of attitude, I have been able to study some cases from the Blue Cliff Record, The Mumonkan, and the Book of Serenity.
The teacher in this case, Dongshan, was an important Zen master during the T’ang period in China, and lived from 807 to 869. He formulated the 5 degrees of enlightenment, which were based on increasing depths of realization. This scale is still in use today. He was also very involved in the question of whether inanimate things have Buddha nature, which was new and controversial at the time he practiced. He was enlightened under his teacher Shitou (pronounced “Sheer-do”) and was his attendant for 20 years. Dongshan had 26 Dharma heirs.
So, here is the case: A monk asked Dongshan “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?” Dongshan said “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”
The monk said “What is the place where there is no cold or heat?”
Dongshan said “When its cold, the cold kills you, when its hot, the heat kills you.”
So, what are they talking about here? This is a dialogue about preferences, desires—about what we want and don’t want in our lives. The monk is asking Dongshan—when conditions come along in life that are outside of our preferences, uncomfortable, not what we want (cold or hot)—how can we escape them? I would bet this monk is relatively new to practice. I don’t think it takes too long on the path of practice to realize that trying to avoid life’s unpleasant conditions is not going to work very well. It’s a natural place to start from and a great problem to present in a koan because it is so often our first response to discomfortâ€”How can we avoid this? It may take practicing for awhile to shift one’s perspective and habitual responses, but this monk is not there yet. He asks “how can we avoid them?” not “how can we live with them?”
Dongshan’s response may have given the monk some hope. “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?” The monk might have been encouraged by this—maybe this zen practice is going to be helpful if I can get to the place where conditions are more to my liking. So the monk asks “What is the place where there is no cold or heat?” The monk does seem to be aware that the “place” where there is no cold or heat is not some external location, because he does not ask “where is the place where there is no cold or heat?” He asks “what is the place where there is no cold or heat?” So he must realize that Dongshan is talking about how one responds to conditions—the internal response.
It seems to me that we often respond to difficult, unwanted circumstances by external means—for more quiet, going to a place in the woods, where the only sounds are nature, wind and birds, rather than trying to cultivate an internal quiet in response to noise. When we are cold, we usually turn on the heat or put on a jacket. When bored, there are any number of choices from television, to eating to shopping. Not too many of us would choose to let the boredom be or examine it with curiousity. We live in a culture that encourages looking outside of ourselves rather than inside.
In response to the monk’s question, “what is the place where there is no cold or heat?” Dongshan’s final comment is “when its cold, the cold kills you, when its hot the heat kills you.”
This is dramatic zen language for killing the part of you that has preferences, that wants things to be different than they are. Compare what it is like to be cold—to feel the cold and relax your body and mind, to breathe into the cold, Maybe to have a thought “I wish it was warmer.” But not put energy into that. Let it and yourself be cold—accept things as they are. An alternative to that is to be cold and to grit your teeth and clinch your jaw, tighten your body and fill your mind with complaints—god its cold, I hate this, I wish the weather was better etc. We all had a chance recently, with our weather before thanksgiving, to try this very thing—and I remember walking home from work one night when it was really windy and about 18 degrees, and catching myself tensed up and mentally complaining, then relaxing my body and mind and accepting the cold, and it was a very different experience—a much better walk. It was not nearly as painful and often very invigorating, and I was still cold.
Zen and Buddhist literature is full of writing on this subject. Natalie Goldberg wrote a book called Long Quiet Highway about her practice of Buddhism and her work with Katageri Roshi. She tells one story about a time when the sangha was doing a sesshin, I think it was in Nebraska in the late fall, so it was very cold. She was serving breakfast one morning, either outside or in an unheated tent, and she was hurrying along, trying to finish quickly, so she could return to the warm kitchen. Katageri saw her and yelled “eat the cold.”
I have two favorite short quotes on this topic. Suzuki Roshi said “accept what is as it is and help it to become its best.”
The other quote is a Taoist saying “to the mind that is still, the world surrencers.”
Then, there is the well know poem by Seng t’san that begans “The great way is not difficult Just avoid picking and choosing. This is part of case 2 in the Blue Cliff Record. And then, there is the second noble truth—suffering is caused by desire and aversion. Wanting this and not wanting that.
Preferences and desires are just part of being human. Sometimes it seems like life is just a neverending series of responses to conditions that arise—I want this to go away, I want that to stay, things would be better without this, now I feel good, now I don’t feel good. So we are not talking about reaching a state where you do not have desires—we are talking about turning down the volume on the commentary about what is occurring in our life, so that we are not so reactive to our desires, and at the same time, working on relaxing and accepting what is—-help it to become its best. And this is a practice that we continue to work on. Its one of those things you will never fully succeed at, so you work with it forever. Part of the work here is changing our response to life’s problems. Can we develop an attitude that these difficulties are what we most need to practice with.
Again, there is much written about seeing life this way. Pema Chodren advised, “stay open to whatever life presents you with because it will teach you something if you let it.” She goes on to quote the Lojong teachings—”when the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi (enlightenment)” Whatever occurs is not considered an interruption or obstacle, but a way to wake up. Jetsunma Palmo says the same thing here: “It is absolutely fundamental that we learn that when difficult feelings and situations arise, they are not obstacles to be avoided, but rather, these very difficulties are in fact the path itself. They are our opportunity to wake up out of our little protected world, they are our opportunity to awaken into a more genuine way of living. This point cannot be overemphasized. Working to change our attitude and response to problems is a key part of our practice. Over time and with this practice, can we get closer to Dongshan’s place where there is no cold or heat?
In the reading I did for this talk, one of the points emphasized is that accepting things as they are does not mean passivity in the face of difficult conditions. It is ok to work to change a bad situation. If someone has serious financial problems, it is best to try to take care of that by acknowledging the reality of the situation, cutting expenses, paying down debt or trying to earn more money. It would certainly be ok to leave a relationship where there is mistreatment or abuse. Tackling problems beginning with acknowledging and accepting how things really are leads to a better outcome than hating your situation, denying it, complaining about it, or fantasizing about how life should be.
In a talk on this case, Norman Fischer noted that preferences will always arise and that life would be “narrow and repetative” if we always got our choices. The unexpected or unwanted can broaden your life if you let it. Here is a short quote from his talk. “To be alive is to experience the full spectrum of states—pain, joy, boredom, excitement. To be able to experience these states without complaint, rejection or clinging is to live naturally. The great way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose.
I have an example from early in my life that I think illustrates what Norman is talking about. As my first year of college neared its end, I needed a summer job, and in spite of looking hard, I could not find one. I had made some new friends that first year and wanted to work in Seattle so I could spend time with them on evenings and weekends. I had a great summer all planned out. But things did not turn out the way I hoped. I only had one job offer by the end of the school year and that was to be a choker setter in a logging operation on the Olympic Peninsula and I would have to live there, in a logging camp, during the summer. I did not want to take that job. I did not want to miss out on summer fun in Seattle with my friends, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do the work required of me, and I didn’t know how I would be treated by career loggers. When I was 18 I looked 14 and was pretty small physically. There are a lot of stories I could tell about that summer, but what stood out were the variety of men I worked and lived with. There were guys who had been logging for 40 years and had wonderful stories of the old days, there were drifters—men who wandered from place to place, working for a few weeks, then one day, they were gone. Some would go into town on weekends and come back broke and hung over on Sunday afternoon, and there were a few family men too. Everybody worked hard and at times, the conditions were very difficult, but I was able to keep up, do my part and fit in. My partner on the crew was a guy named Tony—he was about 30 and 6′ 5″ He told me he grew up on a reservation in Maine, where school was only offered through the 8th grade. He was proud that he could still name all 50 states and their capital cities, which he did one day during lunch. Once, we were standing together on a log and a tree started to fall in our direction. We both started running, but I was slower, so he picked me up and carried me like a football and kept running down the log until we were out of harm’s way. He told me, with a smile, that I wasn’t going fast enough. We got along well and worked together well and hearing the stories of his life made me really appreciate the opportunities I had been given and feel badly that he and many others had such difficult lives. I would never have come across people like Tony in my regular life.
After that summer was over, I said to myself that I would never want to do that again but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Many cultures have rituals to help young people transition to adult life, so that after completion, the participant has left adolescent life and is recognized and feels more like a young man or young woman. In our culture, we often have to find our own ways to make that transition. That summer working in the woods, with all of its challenges and lessons ended up being a big part of my transition to adulthood
I would not have taken that job if I had one other choice, and if I knew ahead of time what I was in for, I bet I wouldn’t have taken it even without.other options. And yet, it is one of the most important experiences I ever had. When I was 18, I was afraid that I would not be able to do the work I was hired to do—that I would fail in some wayâ€”that I would be a disappointment. While I have a lot more confidence now than I did then, from time to time fear of failure comes up strongly and I have to wrestle with it.
Because we are human, we have desire for things to be a certain way—it is not realistic to think that practice will lead to the end of desire. Avoiding picking and choosing, or when its cold the cold kills you and when its hot the heat kills you, means that we are aware of our preferences and desiresâ€”our internal states or external conditions, and, regardless of circumstances, are more able to embrace life when something different happens—to again quote Suzuki Roshi, to go forward in the best possible wayâ€”even to see cold and heat as opportunities to practice. I think that is what Dongshan is trying to teach this monk and that is the lesson for us as well.