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Tozan's "No Heat or Cold"

The Blue Cliff Record

[translation by Katsuki Sekida:Two Zen Classics.Weatherhill,NY 1977. copyright:Katsuki Sekida 1977]

A monk said to Tozan, " Cold and heat descend upon us. how can we avoid them?" Tozan said, "Why don't you go where there is no cold or heat/" The monk said, " Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?" Tozan said, "When cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you."

Setcho's Verse

  • A helping hand, but still a thousand foot cliff Real and Apparent: no arbitrary distinction her. The ancient emerald palace shines in the bright moonlight. The clever [monk] climbs the steps - and finds it empty.

This case is about how we face difficulty - something at the core of our practice, and something that sesshin makes particularly vivid. The monk in this koan is in pain and is honest about it and wants to know how to escape it. We're all in that position one time or another in sesshin, aren't we? The question is, what do we do about it? There are many ways to understand the "cold and heat" that this monk wants to escape. But perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to rush past the literal meaning into metaphor. Physically, life was hard in those days, and a monk's life harder. Heat and cold were very real problems, though the characters in these old stories tend to take the capacity for extreme physical exertion and endurance almost for granted - a prerequisite for a monk's life. I don't know how many of us could manage it.

So before we move onto to look at other levels, we should stop and ask ourselves how well be handle difficulty on purely a physical level. We don't suffer from the temperature here, but most of you will have to face a good of pain in your legs before the day is through. How will you handle letting the pain be so great that it kills you? At another level, heat and cold can be internal feelings, not external ones - anger and fear and doubt - that over and over we practice acknowledging and sitting with rather than avoiding. But all of us come to practice like this monk hoping that it will one day take us to a place where we're free of anger and fear. At the most abstract level, we can see cold and heat symbolizing as the whole realm of opposites, of duality, of good and bad, sometimes in Buddhist literature referred to as the Apparent or Relative world as opposed to the world of oneness or the Absolute. In this reading, maybe the monk is saying, I've been sitting here a long time, I've listened to all the old sutras that talk about wonderful sounding things like Oneness and enlightenment, but all I'm experiencing is cold at night and heat in the afternoon.

Where is this Oneness that everybody's always talking about, anyway? And Tozan tells him it right here, right in the midst of the heat and the cold - not somewhere else, not in some "higher" state he's got to reach. To be completely, unself-consciously cold, cold without any thought of escape or how well I'm handling being cold or anything, just [shivering] COLD - right there is no separation, no self. Or, in Tozan's language, the self is killed. We all imagine meditation will take us to some Higher state, but Tozan is challenging us to completely abandon all notions of higher and lower. The emerald palace shining in the moonlight? Well, you might think of it as a grand image for samadhi, for that state of complete absorption in the moment, but the catch is it's empty, you're not there to appreciate it. If you are there, trying to admire your exalted condition out of the corner of one eye, well the whole thing crumbles. Or, we can just think of it as another castle in the sky, the kind we're always building, where we think we want to live instead of this world. That dream is ultimately empty. Right here, right now were in the only palace there is. Nippy in here, isn't it?

I'd like to say some more about the koan we discussed at last week's sesshin. Since some of you weren't there, I'll repeat some of what I said. Those of you who want to see the full text and commentary can look it up in The Blue Cliff Record. The case was Tozan's "No heat or cold, " and it goes like this: A monk come to his teacher Tozan, and says, "Cold and heat descend upon us, how can we escape them?" And Tozan replies, "why don't you go where's there's neither heat or cold?" And the monk naturally asks, "where's that?" And Tozan says," When it's cold, let it be so cold that the cold kills you, when it's hot ,let it be so hot that the heat kills you." As I said the other day, we can understand, "cold" and "heat" in a variety of way. There's the literal level of physical pain - and during sesshin that literal level becomes pretty important doesn't it? How we deal with pain and whether there's a way to escape it, doesn't feel like a metaphor for anything else - pain is problem enough. Then there's the level of emotional pain, and we might talk about the anger and fear that descend upon us and we must deal with. Or at a more abstract level, there's the whole realm of duality, of opposites like cold heat and cold, and the question then is, is there some realm that goes beyond that, some realm of oneness, and if so where is it, how do I get there? And Tozan's reply tells us that practice isn't about escaping anything, it's about going completely INTO our experience - and being cold with no thought of escape and no self-consciousness about how much we're enduring, just being cold - that's being one with the cold, and in the traditional way of talking, in that oneness there's no self, the cold "kills" the self.

What I want to add to that today is the caveat that none of this means that we sit passively and simply suffer what's ever going on. Fully being with something also means fully responding to it. It like a bow: first we bring our two hands together - the two become one - then we bow down and the one shows it functioning as a bow. But we have to be careful that we don't make our response simply another way of trying to escape an unpleasant experience. let me give you an example from a new movie you might have seen.

It's called "As Good As It Gets," and Jack Nicholson is playing a character with an obsessive-compulsive disorder - he horribly afraid of germs, is constantly washing and re-washing his hands, he brings his own plastic silverware with him to restaurants, he has all sorts of counting rituals and is afraid to step on cracks in the sidewalk. You get the idea. All this is an elaborate attempt to control anxiety. But of course, it's always backfiring, since life isn't interested in cooperating with all his foibles. And so he's constantly bouncing back and forth between fear and anger, redoubling his rituals, and enraged when anyone does anything that interrupts them. Cold and heat; where can he go to escape them? The change that we witness in the movie, is that this character decides that in order to try to save a relationship with a woman he's met, he will have to deal with his fears in a different way. Instead of the elaborate rituals designed to allow him to escape his fear, he begins to do things fearfully. He goes into the fear instead of away from it. He steps on cracks, he goes into new and strange situations without his usual protection and so on. All this is what Tozan is talking about, becoming the cold and heat, becoming the fear to the point that all the old self-centered defenses are killed off, and we're functioning in the midst of our fear. This is what Joko calls learning to suffer intelligently. We learn suffer in the midst of our fear or our anger and so continually wear down our defensive selves - instead of the usual sort of suffering that involves always trying to escape our fear and our anger and then suffering the inevitable failure of our defenses. This intelligent suffering is far from passive. Zen is not about training masochists. It's about functioning in the midst of cold and heat, not avoiding them, not avoiding our life.