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Fire and Ice

December 18, 2011 by Yugen

Jim Lakey Rev. Jim Yugen Lakey
Yokoji Zen Mountain Center

Fire and Ice

I'm in the process of putting together the Community Journal for the first quarter of 2012 and the dharma talk for this issue is Tozan's 'No heat or cold'. Bill Shinjin Butler selects and transcribes the talks and this one seems particularly apt right now. The case is as follows:

A monk asked Tozan, “When cold and heat come, how does one avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why not go to where there is no cold or heat?” The monk said, “How is it where there is no cold or heat?” Tozan said, “When it’s cold, it kills you with cold; when it’s hot, it kills you with heat.”

At the moment, one of my primary concerns is trying to keep warm. I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that. That is, each person is trying to keep themselves warm, rather than each person is doing their utmost to keep me warm. That would be nice, though. I wake up in the morning and my cabin is warmer than outside, warm enough that I am able to get out of bed without cursing and warm enough to wash and dress without feeling utterly discouraged. Yet it would be hard to call it warm. I have a wood burning stove that burns out about halfway through the night and there are usually embers enough to start something in the morning without too much bother, but as a measure to conserve fuel, not to mention my precious moments of coffee-drinking before dawn zazen, I tend not to.

After a brisk walk to the Buddha Hall where I usually lament the fact that I did not not dress in even more layers, I put on my robes and take coffee to Tenshin Roshi. At this point, the temperature is in the hands of the one known as the 'jikido', or timekeeper. It is the responsibility of the jikido to keep the fire going in the study hall which spreads the warmth to the Buddha Hall, kitchen and dokusan room, where Tenshin Roshi takes his coffee before zazen. I have found that you can tell a lot about someone by the way they handle the study hall fire. Some people master it, keeping the entire area warm and temperate during their week or two long stint as jikido. Some people fluctuate between too hot and too cold, never quite syncing with the nature of the fire. Other people never get the room warm enough, so the floor, walls and ceiling are perpetually cold and the heat seems to be always losing an ongoing battle. Others claim the fire is inadequate to heat the entire space, that it simply can't be done. I've been in the Buddha Hall in the heart of winter when it is freezing cold outside and you could be in short sleeves inside, so this is experientially not the case. There are only a few variables to deal with - the type of wood you burn, when and how much you put in and how to deal with the air vents that draw more oxygen in to the fire. For me, the fire tells you everything you need to know if you just pay attention to it. Unless there is a feeling of sympatico, it just won't burn well. Unless there is enough of a desire to take care of the temperature of the Hall and those in it, it doesn't happen.

I remember when I was at art school, a sentiment attributed to the head of sculpture, Brian Catling, was that time can be bent. I think this was used in response to those who claimed they hadn't had time to finish, or to work on their current project. I really didn't appreciate this at the time. It seemed to undermine what was otherwise a very valid and useful excuse. Time can be bent. How is that? I have found that when I really want to get something done, it gets done. I can't think of a single time when that hasn't been the case. I'm talking on the level of personal goals here, rather than shots at changing the world overnight. As Tenshin Roshi often says, it may not happen as you think it will or want it to, but it will happen. There is always a cost, but with determination in place, time can be bent, and it will get done. I often find that when I don't get things done, I have to begrudgingly admit to myself that I simply didn't want it bad enough, I didn't pay enough attention, I didn't give enough of myself to what was at hand. That is one of the most beautiful lessons that I have learned here: it can be done if I am willing to pay the price. The fact of the matter is, however, I'm not always willing to pay the price. I see this in myself and others. I know this is where I fall down as a practitioner and I guess it is a trait of human being - I can be clear on what I want but I'm a lot less clear on how much effort I'm willing to put in to it and why that is the case. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way and it is all a matter of degree - what I consider effort may be considered laziness by someone else, and vice versa. But at least I know that if and when I really do want to do something, above all else, then there is nothing standing in my way. Apart from all the time and effort that is necessary to bring it into being, of course. Although, as with hot and cold, there is only one place where time and effort don't exist and it is exactly this place that things get done.


  • Doetsu:

    19 Dec 2011 00:15:46

    I know you were talking about keeping a fire going, Yugen. But I kept thinking about how it applies to me, making my art.
    Thanks. I needed to read that today.
    Ilene Doetsu Van Gossen

  • Khembottra Oum:

    19 Dec 2011 03:58:33

    I like how you referenced Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”. Very nice man!

  • christ hogyo platteeuw:

    19 Dec 2011 06:29:06

    Very profound analysis. At least very useful to me. Thank you.

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