The Blue Cliff Record, Case 43

The Case:

A monk asked Master Tozan, “When heat and cold come, how can we avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no heat or cold?” The monk asked, “How do I get to that place?” Tozan said, “When it is hot, heat kills the monk. When it’s cold, cold kills the monk.”

Tozan perhaps could have added, zazen kills the monk. And zazen kills zazen.

This koan, which is very well known, is symptomatic of a difficulty in Zen. It isn’t that there isn’t an enormous amount of commentary on this and the other well-known koans. It’s just that a lot of that commentary, to us at least, is grand but empty; sonorous but meaningless. 

And the reason for that is that we fundamentally misunderstand these various Masters. We imagine that Baso, Tozan and all the other great Tang Dynasty Zen monks represent a rupture with Buddhism up to that point. When in fact they copiously quote from sutras and other sources, but they tend to have assumed that their audience was aware of the source. And so, the quote isn’t specifically referenced.

In this case Tozan is directly alluding to a passage which the Buddha talked about our state in meditation where he said: our state of perception is not no-perception. It isn’t disordered perception. And it isn’t ordinary perception. So the question obviously remains: what is it?

After zazen we chant the Heart Sutra, where we refer to the five skandhas. They are form, sensation, perception, mental fabrication and consciousness; they describe the human being. And, as in lots of Buddhist formulations, they build on each other.

Because our society has such a psychological bent we’re inclined to think that non-attachment occurs at the level of the fourth skandha (mental fabrication). So in the case of the monk, for instance, we might imagine that he should say, “Oh I’m sitting zazen. I’m very hot. Oh, I notice that’s making me irritable. I shouldn’t attach to that. I shouldn’t go off into a trail of thoughts and emotions. I shouldn’t love or hate the condition.” And so on. So, we locate non-attachment there. We don’t go off into mental fabrication. Our perception of thoughts, feelings, objects and actions is there, but we try not to do anything with them. This is often how people (mis)understand mindfulness.

Non attachment to our perceptions is helpful as a preliminary practice – one that can go on for years, and which, in some sense, is always with us as our preliminary practice today – because it steadies us. But if we think that’s what zazen is, we’re completely wasting our time. And if I tell other people that’s what zazen is, I’m completely wasting their time.

The non-attachment which Tozan is referring to is at the level of the earlier skandha ( sensation ). So we’re not saying, “Oh I’m sitting in a room in a blue chair, with the sunlight coming through the window, feeling a bit melancholy, hearing birdsong, having intermittent thoughts about yesterday, practising non-attachment.” No: we are not at the level of perception. We are not sitting in the world constructed and pictured by our mind and culture, yet maintaining detachment from it. We’re at the skandha below that: the skandha of sensation. Obviously, we bounce around through all of them. We can’t stop having thoughts. We can’t stop having thoughts about thoughts. But we can let them go.

So, at the level of the second skandha, we’re feeling, we’re sensing all this activity and expression in ourselves and the world. But we’re not fixing it, we’re not conceptualizing it, we’re not picturing it. We’re not within our familiar world. We’re just feeling what we feel. And when  – as they must – perceptions of objects and thoughts arise,  and thoughts about those thoughts and objects and emotions arise, we have the space of embodiment in which they can come and go freely. Which is why we emphasise the importance of the body so much. If we practice zazen but we’re not embodied, our experience can’t be earthed. There isn’t the spacious container of body, breath and space, there’s just the mind, with an unavoidable focus on and attachment to the level and type of mental charge, which is often accompanied by an acquisitive spirituality, the quest for enlightenment, higher states, evolved consciousness, and the various other bright things in the junk shop of spiritual capitalism.

But it’s important to note that the state that Tozan is referring to isn’t a final state. There isn’t a final state. All five skandhas are empty. We understand that our perceptions are constructions (and doubly so for what we then weave with these perceptions) and hence empty, but the two earlier skandhas, Form and Sensation, are empty too, but in a slightly different way. It’s plain that our sensations are coming and going within this greater body of alive embodiment, and hence are ‘empty‘, but the first skandha, Form, is empty too. How so? Because the body in Zazen, in its spacious, balanced aliveness, is not separate. We do not experience our body as a lump of form, or as a parcel of energy, separate from all beings, but, indeterminately, part. Not as something thought, but as something experienced.

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