Dongshan’s Cold and Heat – a talk by Madelon Bolling (August 12, 2018)

Posted by on Aug 15, 2018 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Dongshan’s Cold and Heat – a talk by Madelon Bolling (August 12, 2018)

Blue Cliff Record, Case 43:

A monk asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat visit us, how should we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat?”
The monk asked, “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”

Discomfort pervades our experience. Sometimes we can do something about it, sometimes not. If not, as the monk asked, how can we avoid the unavoidable? Dongshan suggests we go where there is neither cold nor heat—neither too little nor too much of anything. But “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”

Dongshan answered with “when” rather than “where.” When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.” What happens when you turn toward unpleasantness with curiosity and interest rather than automatically turning away?

Many of us in all innocence say we want to be better people. Aitken Roshi said: “A lot of us start out on the practice because we don’t accept ourselves fully.” [MZM p.17]

Wanting to be a better person means believing that what we are right now is not OK, not good enough: Too cold. Or too loud, too passionate: too hot. In my life, “being a better person” sounded like this for decades: I want to be better. I’m working on it, I really am. There’s something flawed about me and I hate it too. Please don’t reject me. I am trying to change.

This is a highly uncomfortable position, assuming that if I didn’t work to better myself, evil would take over and I would be blamed. I’d do my best to reassure those around me:  “Don’t worry, I know—I’m fighting tooth and nail trying to be better, and I’ll keep at it until I die.”

In the interest of not being rejected by others, a perfectly natural survival instinct, I learned to fight or reject my own experience no matter what, and learned it well. After decades of this I finally had to admit: I never got any better. I could improve my skills, but my character? not so much: all my faults and shortcomings are very much with me to this day.

Aitken Roshi once said:

You are probably all too aware of your faults and weaknesses. You get angry and are lazy. But really, faults and weaknesses are just pejorative words for qualities of character. You have faults as the Earth has faults—lines along which you expand and contract. [MZM p.30]

And those fault lines aren’t going anywhere. That disapproving internal monologue is odd, you know? It is totally focused on a fictional ideal character in a fictional ideal future, and it implies that life will only start properly once I have changed. But if I gave up on that story, what would be left?

A wise person once said, “What if you’re not a problem to be solved? What if you don’t have to fight yourself anymore?” Well, the actual words my grandfather used were: “Be yourself.” Fifty years ago I was as baffled by this advice as the monk who asked Where is there neither cold nor heat? and was told When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.

The idea of not being a problem and not fighting myself was frightening—I’d have to let go of all the guidelines I had learned for staying alive. And there you have it: this is our task: letting go. One old safety line is the notion that we know about and control what we are doing and how we appear. Underlying that is the guideline, the assumption that there is such a thing as a self, and that these beings, these selves have a life span. But in the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says:

no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self
or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.
(Chapter Three)

This is our task as students of the Way: to let go all the illusory safety ropes that have guided us so far on the perilous journey through the dark Unknown that we call life.

Whatever I have is just plain here already and apparently there’s no choice but to go with it just as it is. At this point of recognizing that there is no choice, the Purification chant begins to make sense:

All the evil karma, ever created by me since of old,
on account of my beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance,
born of my conduct, speech and thought,
I now confess openly and fully.

This open, unqualified admission of beginningless flawed behavior, allowing ourselves to see and own how I—by the simple fact of being an “I”—necessarily act from greed, hatred and ignorance (grasping, rejecting, and justifying or defending)—this admission is an essential point of our practice. But it’s not about donning a hair shirt and flogging ourselves endlessly. It’s about seeing clearly what’s really going on rather than buying into the thinking mind’s stories about it. And so:

A monk asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat visit us, how should we avoid them?”

Or rather, what if I can’t avoid these conditions because they are, and can never be otherwise?

Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat?”

Our practice supports inquiry into reality, inquiry into experience, allowing us to doubt everything, relentlessly moving in closer. It makes room for the dismantling of what we take for granted, as an initial step on the Way. Doubt cold and heat! Doubt passion and pain! Doubt identity! Step in closer: what are they really? To question reality this thoroughly we have to put aside what we think we know now, our plans and our assumptions. Here we can ignore the usual agendas and drop any concern with what comes next. All expectations are put on hold–even the most minimal: that there will be another breath after this one. Let it go. What happens when you don’t even know that?

Radical, you know? And utterly necessary. Before and after, the notions of time and sequence are mental constructs within reality, not reality itself. Concepts of opposition are all mental constructs, the habit of saying “this is not that” about bad and good, worse and better, taller, shorter, heavier, lighter, slow and fast, dark and light, you and me, us and them, red and blue, green and yellow, human and non-human, sight versus hearing versus touch, smell versus taste, male and female, head versus foot, day and night, sleep and waking, early and late, hairy and smooth—well, it goes on endlessly. Relinquishing the twoness of opposites means letting go—letting go of all distinctions of perception whatsoever, giving up on difference between this and that, the very notion of two and the practice of perceiving “this is not that.” To be honest, if you look closely, this is not even this.

Wumen said, “for subtle realization it is of the utmost importance to cut off the mind road,” and here it is… the realm of opposites, the very foundation and paving of the mind road, of thinking. Hui-hai said that “the gateway of our school is to be entered by giving up the dualism of opposites…” (Aitken, Practice of Perfection, p.7)

And why? If we have spent our energies up until now on shoring up a fictional identity based on distinctions between objects and beings, and this fiction is not supported by the evidence of experience, well, we really don’t know who or what we are or what we are doing. We only know what we think we are, and thinking is just—stories about how things are. In choosing to abandon the mind road, in letting go and experiencing the non-separation of self and other, we open the way of not knowing wherein agendas disappear: there is nowhere to go and nothing to be done.

Does that mean that everything is mush? gray upon gray upon gray with no edges and all the glory of sun shining through green leaves on black branches under brilliant blue sky just disappears? All the Zen masters of the world are not such masochists. But please tell me what happens when you get in closer and closer and inquire into, enter completely into what “cold” or “hot” or “mortified” or “sad” or “afraid” really are, before words? What appears and what disappears, there in the place that is no place?

Getting inside what we have taken for granted allows us to forget ourselves. But forgetting the self is not some mysterious, difficult task to be done, not something we can do. It just happens, a side effect that blossoms of itself in that same not-knowing moment of letting go that marks the approach to cold or heat. It is like forgetting a dream, forgetting a story, and knowing ourselves anew as the raucous call of a bluejay and the brush of a warm breeze, the raspy sound of a power tool and the fragrance of soup, the ache of cold and the burning of heat.

Here is a lovely poem by Wendell Berry, that says all of this in just a few words. It’s called “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
(The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, NY, Counterpoint, 1998, p.68)