Going Beyond

‘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 the cold kill you; when hot, let the hot kill you.”‘ (Blue Cliff Record, case 43)

There are many different ways I can tell my life story, but in most of them, the fact that I found English winters increasingly hard to handle would be an important element. The extended trip that I took which brought me out to San Francisco for the first time, in November 1999, on my way to Australia and then South Africa, was the latest in a string of winter vacations that I started taking as soon as I earned enough money to do so. That particular trip changed the course of my life, and I am happy to be typing this on a warm, sunny and bright day in the same city, seventeen years later. 

I sometimes wonder about how the family history I am best acquainted with might play a part in this. Among my father’s Cornish forebears, there were at least two generations when only one of the many children lived long enough to reproduce,  the rest succumbing largely to consumption, and my great-great-grandfather probably owed his life to the fact that he spent several years in Australia as a young man, in a drier and warmer climate than his native one.  On my recent vist home, even though the weather was kind, I had the sense of people preparing to close down and go inward for the long grey months ahead, and was glad not to be having to endure that. On my last mornings, I was already starting to feel the cold, as I started to last week here in California; my step-mother drily recommended that I get out and move around more.

The most extreme climate I have lived in is unquestionably Tassajara; the hottest day I can recall topped out at 112, a notch warmer than the indoor plunge at the bath-house, and there were spells where it was below 20 for several consecutive mornings. Often, inside the many unheated cabins, it would be below freezing, though the worst experience for me was at the beginning of my first winter, where we had a cold snap, but the zendo heating was not functioning. I wore eight layers of clothes to sit through the mornings, and feared that it would be the same for the next five months, which happily turned out not to be true. Conversely, the hardest part of being there in the summer last year was being obliged to wear my four layers of priest robes in the evening, when the temperature in the zendo would be in the 90s; any other time, the dry heat functioned as a deep relaxation for me, which I can perhaps best explain by the fact that such heat is associated in my mind with being abroad.

All of which makes the above koan an interesting  one for me to sit with. I have a sense, through zazen, of the place beyond hot and cold, which is also the place beyond good and bad, beyond self and other, but I certainly don’t live there.

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