Dongshan’s “go to the place where there is no cold or heat” is like flowers blooming on a withered tree in the midst of a frozen tundra. His “let the cold kill you, let the heat kill you” is the roaring furnace that consumes every phrase, idea, and thing in the universe. Even the Buddhas and sages cannot survive it. Nothing remains. We should understand clearly, however, that this “let the cold kill you” is not about cooling off. Cold is just cold, through and through. Also, “let the heat kill you” is not about facing the fire. Heat is just heat, through and through. Further, there is no relationship whatsoever between Dongshan’s heat and cold. Heat does not become cold. Cold does not become heat. The question really is, where do you find yourself?
~Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi~
The dawn of the twenty-first century is a critical time in human history. Both our species and planet are in jeopardy. On the one hand, we have the knowledge and capacity for power undreamed of only decades ago. On the other hand, millions of people starve, our ecosystem is threatened, natural resources are being plundered, family and marriage relationships deteriorate, governments and corporations wallow in corruption, and personal and national conflicts prevail as the most common way we define ourselves. One unique characteristic of all this pain, confusion, and sense of impending doom, is that for the first time in the history of the world all the major threats to humankind are created by humans. The most dreadful dangers are not the natural disasters of advancing glaciers, plagues, earthquakes, floods, famines, or catastrophic meteor strikes. All the serious threats stem from human behavior, that emerges out of our deeply ingrained individual and collective conditioning and resulting delusions. We have the means—technology, materials, skills, and money—to solve the problems that we face. We have the inherent wisdom and compassion. Working with these difficulties is what engaged Buddhism should be all about. But somehow our delusions dominate and color even our practice.
We tend to approach the ancient tradition of the Buddha-dharma with a sophisticated attitude and a supposition that somehow it can’t address the complexities of modern times. We feel it needs adjustment. Yet, there is no question that the Buddha-dharma always manifests in accord with the encountered circumstances, in accord with the moment. But the adaptations needed to allow it to manifest appropriately in each time and location have to come from the same place from which the Dharma originally arose—the enlightened mind.
The most significant problem with arbitrarily “adjusting” Buddhism to become more contemporary or American is that people involved in introducing the changes frequently misunderstand or dismiss the fundamental teachings. With the focus of Buddhism in the West on socially responsible practice, we somehow have forgotten about realized Dharma. There is much talk these days about engaged Buddhism, but we need to see that “engaged Buddhism” cannot manifest unless it is first realized. If Buddhism is not realized, it is not engaged Buddhism. There can be all sorts of engaged activity, but engagement in itself doesn’t make engaged Buddhism.
What does Buddhism have to offer that is unique? Infinitely much. If the Buddha-dharma has not been realized, our reaching out and helping, our involvement, our engaged activities are no different than the work of the Red Cross or Catholic Charities. There are thousands of wonderful people doing good work, good deeds that are desperately needed and commendable. But when we talk about engaged Buddhism, we are not talking about good work. We are talking about compassion.
Compassion is totally different from goodness. It contains goodness but it is not motivated by the same forces that motivate goodness. Compassion is the direct manifestation of wisdom, the clear understanding that there is absolutely no distinction between self and other, no separation. Compassion arises out of intimacy, not out of pity.
Sometimes it seems like the greatest benefactors of so-called “engaged Buddhism” are the people who are engaged, rather than the recipients of the good-will and deeds. Compassion doesn’t work that way. That was not what the Buddha meant by compassion. That is not what Avalokiteshvara or Samantabhadra Bodhisattva are about. That is not what the subtle, profound, and boundless heart of compassion is about. Compassion is not superficial. It is not about gain and loss, sublime feelings, or satisfaction. It runs deep and moves in unique ways. There is nothing like it in Western religious traditions. And it really has not yet fully arrived in this country.
The fact that Buddhism must be realized before it can become engaged does not mean that we “put off” taking care of all sentient beings. We don’t wait to save all sentient beings until we are enlightened. We do it now. But it needs to happen in the context of practice. If there is no practice, then we are just “doing good.” It is not yet engaged Buddhism. Until we crack through the ego shell and get to the ground of being, we have not yet walked in the footsteps of the ancestors who transmitted this incredible Dharma from generation to generation.
The third line of this koan says, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?” Cold or heat, life or death, fear or anger, pain or confusion, are extremes that bog us down, extremes we try to avoid. Based on and nurtured by a 2,500 year-old tradition, we establish a Monastery on this mountain. Despite the tensions and difficulties of the community and society that surround it, the Monastery attempts to preserve the Three Treasures—the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and tries to transmit the finest human values and deepest human wisdom. How can we use this wisdom? How can we take advantage of the opportunity to act compassionately in our world?
Dongshan answered, “When it is cold, let it be so cold that it kills you. When hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.” Often, when we take refuge in these profound teachings, we smash up against them head-on. Even though we have not yet understood the training, we are eager to impose our personal opinions on how it should be. Isn’t that incredible? With assured self-conceit, we employ the same ignorance and delusions that cause the suffering and the imminent destruction of our universe, to redesign this amazing practice that has survived for two millennia on every continent of this great planet.
The impulse to let go of our opinions and positions, the thought of examining and changing ourselves, never occurs to us. We want the universe to shift and accommodate us. If it won’t do that, we adjust the universe. We deal with heat by making air-conditioning. When it gets too cold, we turn up the furnace. Turning us upside down, Dongshan says that when it is cold, let it be so cold it kills you. When it is hot, let it be so hot that it kills you. When he talks about “killing,” he uses that word to mean “consume.” Let it be so hot that the heat consumes you. I remember a common saying from my days in the Navy. When somebody served you a drink, you would “kill it”—drink it straight down. Dongshan’s “killing” expresses a similar meaning, complete combustion. The cold and the heat stand for any condition we try to avoid, to run away from, to alter or control.
The footnotes I added are offered to help you better appreciate the exchange in the koan. The first line says, A monk asked Master Dongshan, “Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?” The footnote says, Consider for a moment not trying to avoid it. What is that? What happens when you do not try to avoid it? What happens when fear comes and you remain still and centered? Avoiding it is delusion. Avoiding means you are trying to run away. How could you possibly do that? The fear has nothing to do with anything outside you. The fear is you. Wherever you go, the fear is there. There is no way to escape it. Not trying to avoid it, we tap into reality. Remaining still is the first step to doing something about it.
The second line says, Dongshan answered, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?” The footnote says, Dongshan freely entered the weeds with the monk. We should understand that “no cold or heat” is not a place. “No cold or heat” has to do with what you do with your mind.
The third line says, The monk continued, “Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?” The footnote adds, Seeing the hook, the monk freely impales himself on it. The fourth line says, Dongshan said, “When it is cold, let it be so cold that it kills you. When hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.” The footnote concludes, Beyond describing, utterly beyond describing.
Dongshan addresses how we can deal with barriers in our lives and practice. The most insidious and important barrier that always comes up is the notion of a self. It creates distinctions—the server and the served, the giver and the receiver, me and you, us and them. In the teachings of Dongshan the distinctions are all consumed. There are no gaps, no way to speak of this and that. That is why the commentary says, Dongshan’s “go to the place where there is no cold or heat” is like flowers blooming on a withered tree in the midst of a frozen tundra. Inconceivable! flowers blooming on a withered tree in a frozen tundra. What does that mean? What is such a reality? His “let the cold kill you, let the heat kill you” is the roaring furnace that consumes every phrase, idea, and thing in the universe. Even the Buddhas and sages cannot survive it. Nothing remains. What state of mind is this?
Dongshan and his successor Coashan are the creators of the Five Ranks which elucidate the relationship of all dualities. The Five Ranks explicitly speak of absolute and relative, but they are pertinent to any duality—good and bad, up and down, enlightenment and delusion, isolation and engagement.
Dongshan’s First Rank is “the absolute containing the relative.” This is the absolute basis of reality—vast darkness with nothing in front of you. It cannot be known and cannot be spoken of. Body and mind have fallen away. Even though it is absolute, it contains the relative. Absolute and relative are always inseparable.
The Second Rank is “the relative containing the absolute.” This is the recognition that the world of phenomenon arises within the world of the absolute. When we first come into training we stress realizing that absolute basis of reality, arriving at “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,” and experiencing the falling away of body and mind. But obviously that is not the whole point of practice. If it were, we would be producing a generation of zombies. Zen would have produced a generation of zombies thousands of years ago, and the Dharma would not have arrived in this country, because people with “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomenon” don’t function and cannot communicate. They cannot walk, talk, or eat. There is more to Zen than that. Realization of the absolute basis of reality must inform all phenomenon, must be applicable to all of our life. We need to see the relationship between emptiness and form, absolute and relative, nirvana and samsara—the world of delusion, the world of cold and heat.
When Dongshan says, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?” this instruction comes from the perspective of the Second Rank: the relative containing the absolute. That is the flower blooming on a withered tree in the midst of a frozen tundra. Frozen tundra is nothingness, obliteration with no distinctions. In the midst of this vast darkness stands a withered tree with not a sign of life or vitality, except for hundreds of flowers all over it. The absolute manifesting in the world of relative phenomenon, darkness within light.
Dongshan’s “When it is cold, let it be so cold that it kills you. When hot, let it be so hot that it kills you” is the First Rank. Absolute darkness, vast emptiness. There is a poem Dongshan wrote about the First Rank:
Early in the night,
Before the moon shines—
No wonder they meet
Without knowing each other.
There is no illumination. You cannot see, cannot distinguish any contours or differences. You do not recognize anything. The moon has not yet arisen, the image of the moon standing as a symbol for realization. The commentary adds, This is the roaring furnace that consumes every phrase, idea, and thing in the universe. Even the Buddhas and sages cannot survive it. Nothing remains. Of course to get here, you have to let the cold kill you; let the heat kill you. Be consumed by the cold; be consumed by the heat.
Master Dogen devoted a whole fascicle in the Japanese Shobogenzo to this experience of realization. The title of the chapter is “Spring and Fall,” and this koan is at its heart. Dogen comments:
We must clarify the monk’s question: “How can we avoid hot and cold?” We should examine closely the meaning of hot and cold. Hot is completely hot, cold is full of coldness, hot and cold are only themselves. Since they are only themselves, they arrive from the head and are actualized from the eye, that is from the root and from the essence of hot and cold. Above the head and within the eye is the place where there is no hot or cold. Dongshan said, “When it is cold, be completely cold, when it is hot, be completely hot.” This is to confront the essence of hot and cold. That is, when hot and cold arrive we must kill them, yet there is a place where they cannot be killed. Cold is completely cold, hot is completely hot.
The koan commentary says, We should understand clearly, however, that this “let the cold kill you” is not about cooling off. What the monk was trying to avoid cannot be avoided. When this koan was written down the buildings did not have air conditioning or central heating. When it was cold it was cold, and when it was hot it was hot. The notion of sustained avoidance is a relatively modern development. Technologically we are quite capable of avoidance, but we have not yet come up with technology for taking care of greed, anger, and ignorance. We have not come up with the technology for eradicating pain and suffering. In fact, our technology seems to be heading in the opposite direction, creating more pain and suffering, feeding into and perpetuating our tendencies to grasp or avoid.
There are some interesting reports about the new drug Viagra. Two years ago, prior to the appearance of this miracle drug, the number of impotent men was thought to be insignificant. Suddenly, with the arrival of Viagra, through calculations of how many men were using the drug, the estimates of male impotence sky-rocketed fiftyfold. People run around trying to solve their problems with a pill. We keep looking for that wonderful new happiness substance to get rid of our pain and fear, to help us not think about what we do not want to think about. Make us numb, preoccupied, distracted. Yet, after the effects of the pill wear off, we are back where we started, in pain and afraid. After you walk out of the air-conditioned car, you are in the heat. If the power fails, you have no heat. What do you do?
Dongshan says, Let the heat kill you. How do you do that? The same way you practice any barrier. The same way you engage the koan Mu. Let Mu kill you, or you kill Mu. Either way is OK; either way—the same result. It means to close the gap. There is no gap unless we create it. The hotter it gets, the bigger the gap grows. The more our legs hurt, the more we separate ourselves from the pain. The stronger the anger becomes, the greater the separation. When we encounter our barrier, the first impulse is to do a 180-degree turn and scurry in the opposite direction. When we do that, we stick to the barrier, because whatever the barrier, it just drags along behind us. When we turn around it is still there, in our face. It is not separate because it is us. How do we deal with it?
Many people think that the koan Mu is some kind of esoteric teaching. A monk asked Chao-chou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Chao-chou said “Mu!” or “No!”, when it is a basic fact that everything on the face of the earth has Buddha-nature. Why did he say “No”? Mu is really a teaching about intimacy. It shows us how not to be separate. It is about learning how to forget the self and realize the ten thousand things, the whole phenomenal universe. You cannot see Mu until you are Mu. You have to close the gap, and you cannot close the gap if you are holding on to something. Whatever we hold on to creates the idea that a self exists and is distinct from the barrier. Whatever the amount of self we hold on to, that is the degree to which we separate ourselves from the world. When students confront difficulties, I often direct them to be the barrier. They say, “I can’t be the barrier. I can’t do it.” If a person concludes that they can’t do something, then definitely they cannot. When I say to someone, “Be Mu,” and they say, “I’ll try,” I know they are not going to get very far. Forget trying. Just vow, “I’ll do it!” Then it is just a matter of time.
Mu is not a casual question. It is vital, and it is about now. It is about this life, the twenty-first century, and the generations of people who follow us. All the various barriers we confront keep us from realization. We do the barriers dance, trying to hop around them, avoid them, ignore them, wish them away. That just doesn’t work. We have to deal with them. Be the barrier. When you are the barrier, it fills the universe and there is nothing outside of it. When your whole body and mind is the breath, there is nothing other than breath. Your breath fills the universe. There is no way to step outside of it. There is no way to examine it, analyze it, judge it, measure it, or talk about it. That is intimacy. That is what Master Dogen means when he says, “Seeing form with the whole body and mind, hearing sounds with the whole body and mind, one understands them intimately.”
The commentary points out, We should understand clearly, however, that this “let the cold kill you,” is not about cooling off. Cold is just cold, through and through. The way we to need understand this is to be totally immersed in the cold. Also, “let the heat kill you” is not about facing the fire. It is not about facing the problem, the barrier, or Mu. It is about consuming it, swallowing it up so it becomes every cell in your body, every breath you breathe, every thought you think, every action you take. Still, it is heat through and through. That is all it is. There is nothing to compare it to. Do not juxtapose it against cold. Do not measure it in degrees of temperature. That is why the commentary says, There is no relationship whatsoever between Dongshan’s heat and cold. There is no relationship between these two, any more than there is a relationship between life and death. Life is a thing in and of itself. Death is a thing in and of itself. Life does not become death, nor does death succeed life. It is the same with cause and effect. Cause does not precede effect nor does effect follow cause. They are one.
There is no relationship whatsoever between Dongshan’s heat and cold. Heat does not become cold. Cold does not become heat. The question really is, where do you find yourself?That is the question that weaves itself through this entire koan. How do you understand the self? That is the question you confront when you practice Mu or deal with any koan. That is the question you need to penetrate when you manifest the great heart of compassion. Where do you find yourself? How much of what you are doing, are you doing because of the imperative of wisdom and compassion? You must do it because there is no alternative. Someone falls, you pick them up, and you don’t even know you are picking them up. Or do you act because it is the right thing to do, or you want to be a good person, or you want people to love you? Sooner or later, doing good that serves the ego is doomed to fail, because it is delusive. Giving that is self-serving fails. Receiving that is self-serving fails .
But there is giving, receiving, loving, helping, and nourishing that is not ego-based. It happens spontaneously, the way the flowers bloom or the rain falls. When the fruit is ready to fall from the tree, it falls. We can try to identify all the reasons it fell, but really it fell because it was ready to fall. It is the ripeness we need to appreciate. Until realized Buddhism is alive and well in the West, truly engaged Buddhism will not come to life. It will continue to be doing good. That’s OK, but let’s not mistake it for Buddhism. We need people doing good, but let’s not confuse it with compassion. Let’s not confuse it with the manifestation of the great heart of Avolakitishvara Bodhisattva.
The Capping Verse:
Is it the bowl that rolls around the pearl,
Or is it the pearl that rolls around the bowl?
Is it the weather that is cold,
Or is it the person that is cold?
Think neither cold nor heat.
At that moment,
Where is the self to be found?
The pearl is the absolute, the bowl is the relative. This is an image for the absolute within the relative, the relative within the absolute. Is it the weather that is cold, or is it the person that is cold? Think neither cold nor heat. At that moment, where is the self to be found? Think neither self nor other; at that very moment, where is Mu? Where is your true self?
Buddhism is growing very rapidly in this country. It is also being co-opted by the media, the press, and the advertising companies. Movie directors in Hollywood are creating images of Buddhism and informing the general public about the religion. In one of the episodes of Karate Kid, there are scenes that take place in a Zen monastery. I felt awful when I saw the movie because part of our karma is tied up with it. The producers, while building the sets for the movie, asked us for photos of the inside of our training center. They duplicated our zendo, then created a weird interpretation of Zen within their movie. Now, thousands of kids probably figure that is what Zen is. The public looks at these movies about Buddhism or reads “definitive” Time magazine articles and draws conclusions about Buddhism. There are hundreds of centers throughout the country and hundreds of teachers, but very little real Buddhism, in spite of all the publicity. Serious practitioners, people who are willing to put their lives on the line, to train in a vigorous and challenging way, and to plunge into the depths of their own psyches to realize their true nature, need to see what is going on. Buddhism is really in their hands. It is in your hands.
Serious practitioners are ultimately going to make the mark of Buddhism in this country. They are ultimately going to take care of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the environment. Zen is beyond doing good. It is about complete morality. It is about functioning ethics. The moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha are anchored deeply in wisdom and compassion. You cannot arrive at wisdom and compassion in any way other than by practicing. You cannot embody wisdom and compassion in any other way than by seeing your edges and practicing them ceaselessly. That is what counts. That is what is going to make our journey into the twenty-first century a vital and important one. Wisdom and compassion need to be realized. It is up to you. Please take care of it.
1. Consider for a moment not trying to avoid it. What is that?
2. Dongshan freely entered the weeds with the monk.
3. Seeing the hook, the monk freely impales himself on it.
4. Beyond describing, utterly beyond describing.