Posts Tagged ‘Stoicism’

Temperature drops Jens Schott Knudsen ps

When cold, be thoroughly cold, an old Zen saying advises. Glancing at the thermometer this morning, I’m reminded of that ancient saying. When the temperature drops into the teens, I like many others want it to be otherwise. Or I want to be elsewhere. And for all the wisdom it may contain, that old Zen saying can seem both useless and faintly annoying.

Fortunately, “When cold, be thoroughly cold” does not mean what it is sometimes thought to mean. Its source is a classic Zen koan (Blue Cliff Record, Case 43), in which a monk complains of the cold, and the Zen master Tozan Ryokai replies, “Why not go to a place where there is no heat or cold?” Of course, there is no such place. And as the dialogue unfolds, Tozan instructs the monk not to resist the cold but to allow it to “kill” him.

To a Western ear, that may sound like pure stoicism: something Seneca or Epictetus might have said. Having grown up with what is sometimes called Midwestern Stoicism, which induces some of its adherents, particularly hyper-masculine young men, to go out in zero-degree weather without caps or scarves, I am well-acquainted with that attitude. What Tozan is urging, however, is something quite different.

To understand the principle behind Tozan’s advice, it’s helpful to remember that Zen is a late flowering of the Buddhist tradition. Fundamental to that tradition is the wholesale rejection of a belief ubiquitous in Western culture, by which I mean the notion of a separate, autonomous self. In its broader context, this belief underlies Western individualism, which further holds that this separate, autonomous self is to be maintained, nurtured, and defended at all costs. If this mindset sounds familiar, it should: Western individualism, one might say, is more American than apple pie. Some people don’t care for apple pie or avoid it for dietary reasons. But, consciously or unconsciously, nearly everyone I know is a proponent of Western individualism. We admire those whom we perceive as strong and independent. And whatever we’ve done in our lives, we fervently believe, we’ve done it our way.

Individualism has deep roots in European and American culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay “Self-Reliance” (1840), a locus classicus of Western individualism, has inspired subsequent generations to make their own way, do their own things, and “be all [they] can be.” Trust thyself,” wrote Emerson. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Implicit in Emerson’s exhortation is a concept of the self as a separate, solid entity, which we own, operate, and—as best we can—control. From infancy we are conditioned by this view, and it is firmly embedded in our language. “It’s your funeral,” my mother used to say, having failed to dissuade me from some unwise course of action. At this point, even my own mother perceived herself and her teen-aged son as distinctly separate, independent beings. And just as the self is conceived of as separate from others, it is also seen as separate from the natural world—the primal source of heat and cold.

In one important way, Zen teachings concur with our Western outlook. Atta dipa . . . atta sirana, ananna sirana, Rinzai Zen disciples chant in their morning service:“You are the light. Rely on yourself. Do not rely on others.” Congruent with this chant, Zen teachings admonish practitioners to realize their “suchness”: their uniqueness (or “Dharma position”) as manifest in any given moment. Ichigo ichie (“one time, one meeting”), a cardinal slogan of Zen practice, echoes that affirmation. Just as the present moment is unprecedented and unrepeatable and therefore to be met with wholehearted attention, so is our own unique presence in that moment. “Bowing to the moment,” we also bow to our unprecedented, unrepeatable selves.

Yet despite this common ground, the concept of self implied or stated in classical Zen teachings differs radically from that of Western individualism. Yes, the self exists, Zen teachings tell us, but it is impermanent, interconnected with others, and interdependent with everyone and everything else, including the natural world. In urging the monk to be thoroughly cold when it’s cold, Tozan is enjoining him to acknowledge that reality. And in instructing him to let the cold “kill” him, he is importuning the monk to set aside both his personal preferences and his relative, dualistic concepts of hot and cold. He is urging him, in other words, to experience and become intimate with the world as it actually is.

That is a difficult teaching. For many, the challenge it poses may be insurmountable. But if inner peace as well as peace on earth is what we seek during this holiday season, we could do worse than entertain this problematic teaching.  Remembering it as we step outdoors, we might inquire what place, if any, Tozan’s advice might occupy in our contemporary Western lives. 


Photo: Temperature Drops. Jens Schott Knudsen. Courtesy Creative Commons.

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