So cold it’s cold

Third Sunday morning Zen in the Tea House

It was 17 degrees this morning and all week we’ve been in deep January cold. The tea house is warmed by a single electric heater, but today it was challenged to keep the room cozy and warm. I thought I’d talk about a koan from the Blue Cliff Record, Tozan’s “No Cold or Heat.”  

Here’s a black and white Zen painting of a bamboo ladle with the words “When it’s hot, be hot”. This refers to Tozan’s reply to the monk who asked “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 then said “Where is that place?”

Tozan replied, “When cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.”

Remember that Tozan was living in Sung dynasty China in the 9th century. What was his life like then? Surely there were no electric heaters to warm even the smallest space. I imagine Tozan as small and robust. Someone you wouldn’t want to tangle with. But meet him then, or meet him now, his response still cuts to the quick.

But I might phrase his answer in a softer tone…

We talked about this koan and how it relates to Zen practice. Many new students since Tozan’s time have been given the instruction, “Count your exhalation from one to ten, and then start over. “

This sounds very simplistic yet it’s quite hard to do. And it’s not counting like you ordinarily do in school or when you’re adding up things on your fingers. It’s diving into that count and exhalation with all your might. That’s what Tozan is saying. Live every moment so completely that you are nothing but it. Nothing but hot, or cold, or THIS very moment.

This morning it was wonderful to be together in the warm tea house on such a cold day, sitting silently, afterwards sharing a cup of tea and talking together about our practice.

Then Emily Dickenson showed up. Not literally of course, since she died quite a long while ago, but her words came alive as this poem was recited.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

 Someone said, “Emily was hot. She lived her life hot.”

Thank you Emily. Thank you Tozan.