I grew up in Montana, surrounded by snow; I also lived for a while in Alaska. So whenever it’s particularly cold or snowy, someone invariably will say to me, “This must not bother you.” I always just laugh—there I am, in two coats and a scarf, boots, a fuzzy hat, mittens that go to my elbows, being told that I’m not bothered by cold. The obvious truth is that I struggle with the cold; when I read Dante’s inferno and learned that the deepest circle of hell was ice, I just thought, Yep, it figures.
There’s a koan about cold that always gets my attention:
A monk went to Master Dongshan and asked, “When cold or heat arrive, how can we avoid them?”
Dongshan asked in return, “Why don’t you just go to a place where there’s no hot and no cold?”
The monk then asked, “Where is the place with no hot and no cold?”
And Dongshan answered, “When it is cold, surrender yourself to the cold; when it is hot, surrender yourself to the heat.”
There are a few ways to read this, and all of them, for me, are helpful. One is about preferences, and the ways in which we define things. There is, of course, no such thing as “cold.” There are degrees of cold; today can be colder than yesterday. But “cold,” taken alone, is something we define, a setting on the dial that we choose, a name we give to a certain kind of discomfort. It’s a description of our experience, not a description of the world. So one way to understand “surrender to the cold” is “don’t label your experience in that way.” When we wait for the bus and think, this is taking so long, we’re defining “long,” and we’re doing it in a way that we believe—usually unconsciously—brings with it a necessary feeling. “A long time” requires “impatience” or “irritation.” “Cold” is accompanied with the feeling that things aren’t good enough as they are; something is off and needs to be fixed. This is dukkha, the basic dissatisfaction the Buddha talked about from his first day of teaching. It’s what we all do, all the time.
There’s a slightly different way to read this koan, which is to consider those things we cannot change. Racism, sexism, injustice—those things are real in this moment, and in this moment, this very moment right now, nothing can change that. But in the future they can change, so we work in this moment to lay the ground for that shift, that transformation. Both things can be true: the reality of now, and the possibility of tomorrow. But some things cannot be escaped. The Buddha noticed this even before he became a buddha—his life was forever changed when he realized, in his bones, that all of us suffer from illness, we all grow old, and we all die.
From that perspective, perhaps the cold is the inevitability of death, the inescapability of suffering, for ourselves and others; if so, then it is always, always cold. We can fight that, or look away from it, or lose ourselves in despair over it, but none of those paths make it any less true, any less present. They don’t make it suddenly warm, and there is no other land you can go to where there is no cold. We can resist or we can accept, pretend or surrender. According to Dongshan, then, we surrender. And when we do, if we really do, it isn’t so cold anymore. Perhaps it isn’t cold at all.
This approach is one of the things that first drew me to Buddhist practice, and it’s a big part of what keeps me here. For all the language we might encounter about transcendence or transformation, beneath that is a message to face the reality of our lives, whatever it may be, and come to terms with it. That’s enough work for this lifetime.
There are things we can’t fix. What are yours? Do you know? If you do know, if you really know, if you see that with clear eyes, then you won’t resist or rationalize or look for the exit. You’re already where you need to be. Settle in. Breathe. You might find that the temperature is just fine.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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