We usually understand things by taking them up the top floor of the mind and finding a slot they fit into. Koans are meant to open a different way of being and thinking. Instead of preparing you to understand your life, a koan prepares you to walk through your life.
Koans are often given in one on one situations; I learned them that way. This course is a Zen 2.0 experiment in working with koans using the intrinsic clarity that people touch when they collaborate.
The Koan for Week 2
A monk asked Dongshan, “When the cold visits us, how can we avoid it?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is no cold?”
The monk asked, “Where is the place without cold?”
Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”
Dongshan’s Cold and Heat is the second koan in our series. It offers one of the classic moves that everyone has to learn. Dongshan points out that you can turn towards things that you might normally avoid. You can curl in toward what you think would be painful or boring or unpleasant.
The motive of finding out what is there will be more helpful than the motive of freeing yourself from unpleasantness. We usually think that the unpleasant is a well known commodity but in almost all cases we haven’t really looked at it. For this reason, if we turn toward it we might find out that it is unknown, mysterious and interesting. The valuable thing about this koan is just to know that you can make that move, unexpected even by you.
When you turn toward cold or heat you are not taking off the shelf solutions to your life anymore. The action might be tiny or it might seem to be the opposite of what common sense, right views, your therapist, good etiquette, correct corporate policy, and consumer research would dictate. This strategy has many applications—it is the foundation of comedy and it is also good if you are an artist, a body worker or a scientist.
I have a small example of the texture of this move. After not smoking for years I was hanging out with a friend whose wife had recently died. He smoked to get through his day and it seemed like courtesy to keep him company. It was fun at first but then I had to find a way to give it up again.
I noticed that the sensation of wanting a cigarette was intense, the way the sensation of smoking was intense. I would want a cigarette and then reach for it even if I had decided not to have one. This was a clue. Reaching for a cigarette was turning away from the craving. So I began to turn toward the craving, to notice it, go into it. I began to look forward to and to enjoy the sensation of craving. After that I smoked only when I wanted to. I found that these occasions were few—a cigar from a friend at New Year’s Eve, for example.
Turning towards cold and heat brings in a sense of play. I was on a summer tour of colleges with my teenage daughter; it was one of those things you do so that you can say you did it and then she can happily go somewhere else that she has never seen. One night I stepped outside the motel and ran across her, lighting a cigarette. It was not clear whether she wanted to be caught. “Oh,” I said and there was a moment of amused uncertainty for both of us. “Can I have one of those?”
You can also touch the freedom inside this koan through small moves. Here is another little example—I had an American friend who was a Tibetan nun and wore the robes, basically swathes of yellow and burgundy cloth. We were talking about how I really didn’t like the idea of being a monastic and she said I ought to borrow her robes and try it out. So I did. I walked around in a country town in California as a Tibetan monk. My assumption was that I would stick out in some inconvenient way and have to deal with odd responses. The opposite was true though, as my friend knew—I became invisible through wearing the robes, and there was something very funny in this.
Questions for working with small groups.
1. Have there been times in your life when you have turned toward a difficulty? Turned away? How was it for you? Are there things in your life right now that you would like to pull away from?
2. What are your associations with hot and cold in your life—passion, hatred, adoration?
3. What would it feel like to kill yourself with heat and what would it feel like to kill yourself with cold?
4. What do you do to avoid intensity or experience?
5. Are there stories about this kind of move from literature or the movies that appeal to you?
6. What else came to you as you were sitting with the koan?
These questions are a suggested guide. It can be good to have more questions than answers.