Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Place Beyond Hot and Cold

Transcribed from a talk given July 10, 2007

Today as I was walking across campus several people spoke to me or, that I ran into, commented that, “boy it’s not very good day to be wearing black robes. It’s hot out.” I think it’s an interesting observation that we have this reaction—in fact several people recommended making a step forward for our tradition with a colour switch for summer robes, maybe some nice white linen robes for summer—and it really put me in mind of another koan that I speak about from time to time and it took me back to a not-so-long-ago in the Victoria Zen Centre, just a few years ago, when our main training place, when our main meditation space, was in the back yard of a basement sweet I was renting.

We had built a small patio and on it there were tans, meditation benches, which were covered by a kind of tarp garage, car port kind of thing, which on an evening like tonight was quite beautiful with the summer breeze playing through it as we sat. But as the season began to change and we started to move into fall and winter we started to see the number of sitters begin to dwindle and often times when the snow was blowing sideways into the tent it was usually just Doshu and I sitting there in the cold.

I would often talk about this koan, this story of a monk approaching his master to complain about the environment that they were in. He said, “master, I really think we need to relocate our temple because in the summer time it’s so hot here that a dog couldn’t swallow it, and in the winter time it’s so cold here that it chills your bones until they are ready to break.” The master’s response to his student was very simple. He said, “why don’t you go to the place where there is no hot and cold.”

This practice of being a monk, this practice of Zen even, is this opportunity for us to enter into the present moment exactly as it is. Isn’t it true that when we find ourselves in a situation that is the least bit uncomfortable we become completely unable to focus on anything except for our discomfort in the situation? Our mind immediately starts to race around trying to figure out how we can change things, what we can manipulate, how we can do something else, get out of this situation. We completely lose touch with what’s happening in this present moment in our desire to be anywhere but here. And on a hot day we find ourselves spending an awful lot of time talking about how terribly hot it is.

I always find it amazing, living in Victoria, that the range of satisfaction for people is so very small. I think it was only about a week and a half ago that I was hearing people complain about how cold and damp it was. Now, suddenly, five degrees change and we’re going the other way.

In this practice, particularly in the formal aspects of practice, as a monk, we have these robes. We’re given these simple outfits to wear. We wear them in the summer and we wear them in the winter. The practice of the monk is not to cover the head, not to cover the hands, not to wear socks or foot coverings and so when it’s cold we’re cold and when it’s hot we’re hot. The practice is to be here with it. The practice is to witness, to experience, to observe what happens when we resist, when we fixate our idea of how things ought to be or how we would prefer them, when we get stuck on our idea of how things ought to be or how we would want them to be or how they should be, and that isn’t the way that they are in this very moment, we suffer.

When for even a moment we’re able to let go of our expectation, we’re able to let go of our desire, we’re able to let go of our wanting things to be this way or that, we’re able to slip into this moment just as it is not judging good or bad, not judging hot and cold, this very moment just as it is, perfect and clear.

Many people want to engage with this practice of Zen. Many people hear these stories, these koans—“why don’t you go to the place where there is no hot and cold.” And want to practice this...but only so far as it’s comfortable for us. We want to try to grasp this state of non-differentiation, dissolving into this present moment...provided that we can do it relatively comfortably. I see this over and over in Zen practice. Having a zendo where things get cold.

We have people taking oaths and vows and swearing how “
into Zen practice” they are, and how important it is and how big a part of their life it is, how significant and important the realization of the state which is beyond hot and cold is. And yet we find that when the mercury dips, so does attendance.

This practice is not one that takes place in the head. You can’t think yourself out of difficulty. You can’t think yourself out of suffering. Taking up every fibre, every atom, of your body, heart, and mind and entering into this present moment just as it is, we can become clear on fixation. We can become more aware of how it is that our desire, our drive to have things just so, this way or that, leads us to suffer.

This form that we use in Zen practice, these traditions like wearing these big robes even on hot days, offers us the opportunity to investigate this; how do we make relationship with this moment, just as it is? If I fixate the notion that I should be cool, that I should be comfortable all the time, then...oh my god this is a horrible situation that I’ve found myself in, walking around in black robes at thirty degrees! When I let go of that expectation, when I bring myself entirely into this moment just as it is, what is there to want? Quite simply there is no other place to be.

As we practice, we find that we have habits. We find that as we sit we have these legs that from time to time, ache. We have backs that give us problems. We have thoughts and emotions that arise and dissolve as we sit. And if we simply practice and do, more zazen, we find that if we bring our awareness to what it is that we are experiencing in this moment we find that when we separate, when we start to think about how things ought to be, then... man, the legs sure really hurt. But a moment later, when even for a glimpse we let go of being anywhere but here, we find that this difficulty simply disappears.

We don’t realize that it is gone until once again we’ve fixated—“oh, there are my legs again.” What happened there? Where did that pain go? What happened there? Where did that distraction go? Where did that strong emotion go?

For a moment we’ve managed to let go of “I”. We’ve managed to enter into this moment just as it is. We have experienced this state which is beyond hot and cold. We do this in simple ways in Zen practice, practicing just with our environment, just with this sensation of heat. As we feel that heat, observe ourselves, observe yourself resisting it, wanting it to be other. As you breathe, as you exhale, let go into the heat. Let it melt you down entirely. If you’re able to do this we find that it’s no problem at all.

Taking up this practice we can then start to engage with this practice in the rest of our lives as well: entering into a situation with family, with friends, at work, which we find uncomfortable, witness it, observe our tendency to hold ourselves outside of it, for us to want it to be anything but what it is in this moment, and then just try, just for a moment, dissolving into the situation just as it is, going beyond hot and cold. As I said, this is a koan, this is a teaching, a very specific teaching about a particular aspect of this activity, this activity we call the universe.

As we continue to practice we discover that these koans are not riddles, they are not intellectual problems that we have to sit down and try and figure out. Quite frankly, they are very simple statements of what is obvious. What is complex, what is difficult, is our thinking mind. If at once we simply let go, these comments are absolutely transparent.

When I looked on the Environment Canada report for this week I was pleased to see that we will have several more days of this opportunity to investigate what it is to go to the place where there is no hot and cold. So each of you, please, investigate this.


  1. Eshu, that photo is a blast from the past!

    Hope you and your family are well.


  2. Yeah, it sure is!

    We are all doing wonderfully well. All the best to you and yours as well!


  3. The whole teaching in a nutshell! Very inspiring.

  4. suite. Basement /suite/.

    Thanks for posting these up here. I'll often read one before meditating - it's the closest thing I have to a sangha and teacher out here!

    - Devon