Monday, 24 September 2012

Sitting in the cold

The temple gate and belfry in autumn rain.
Midday is still quite warm at this time of year in central Japan, but the temperature drops quite a lot in the evening through to early morning. When I go to the temple to sit in summer, I wear a light cotton samue with short, open arms to help keep me cool, if anything could. One of the challenges of sitting in summer is trying to ignore the beads of sweat running down my body, tickling my skin. But now autumn has come, and the mornings are refreshingly and comfortably cool.

Yesterday morning was even cooler as it had rained all night. Soon I'll change to wearing a samue my wife made for me of two layers of heavy cotton to cope with the severe cold of mid-winter. We sit in a zendo with no heating and a thousand draughts. What's more, there are two big sliding doors to the outside and they are opened to 'let the air circulate'. Needless to say, it would chill you to the bone with the wind whipping into the zendo and the snow flakes landing on the stone floor behind us.

At the start of the sitting, I strike a drum and a large hanging bell to signal the beginning. Then I take my seat on the tan. The temple monk then strikes the great bell in the belfry out in the temple grounds several times. Even over a distance of 100 metres you can feel the reverberations of the great bell humming in your chest. (You can see the belfry in the middle of the picture, to the right of the main gate.) From the first striking of the drum to the end of the sitting is a full forty minutes or more. It's a long time to sit in very hot or very cold conditions.

The first few times I sat in the temple in mid-winter I thought I'd never see it through. I remember shivering right through my body and aching with the muscle spasms. It seemed like a crazy thing to do, but I wasn't for giving in so easily. I wore extra layers to give myself a chance, but even with that, the cold works its way through the fabric and gets next to the skin in time. Yet the others didn't complain. They just keep turning up and sitting despite the cold. Old guys and old women, youngsters too, just turning up in usual clothes, climbing on the tan and sitting there for forty minutes without complaining, or even mentioning the temperature. So I reckoned I'd do the same. I reckoned I'd keep at it and keep trying to focus my mind on my breath and away from the cold on my body. In times when I was shivering with the cold I would focus my mind on my erratic breathing, my chest fluttering and quivering, and then try to hold the posture as best I could against my body's spasms. After a while there were times when my body would stop shivering and, despite the cold I'd settle back into a calm sit, almost as if the cold was switched off. It would happen when my mind came to those short periods of rest when the rambling mind would fall silent. I spoke about this with someone later and he directed me to a passage in the Shobogenzo called Shunju (Autumn and Spring). This is the story Dogen wrote:

Great Master Tōzan Ryōkai was once asked by a monk, “When
cold or heat come our way, how are we to avoid them?”
The Master replied, “Why don’t you proceed to the place where
there is no heat or cold?”
The monk then asked, “What is that place where there is no heat
or cold?”
The Master answered, “When it is cold, my acharya,* give
yourself up to the cold; when it is hot, my acharya, give yourself up to
the heat.”

I have often read and heard meditation teachers talking about finding a peace in meditation that can be carried into our daily lives, so when we find ourselves in times of difficulty and conflict we can remember that peace and engage in the practice to regain it. What I do in shikantaza is simply to adopt a posture and focus my mind on my breath or my posture to avoid allowing myself to be consumed and lost in my thoughts. I achieve a mental peace and clarity that was lost to me for many years. With lots of shikantaza practice and time spent in this state of peacefulness I now find it easier to experience it when in my family home, in work, or dealing with people in the world about. I'm not saying that I don't suffer anger or anguish. I know these emotions only too well, but what I have now is a means to deal with them. Or another way of thinking about it, which is probably closer to the truth, is that shikantaza strips away accumulated emotions and misunderstandings leaving me in a more balanced state, or zazen, which is the state and practice combined, on or off the zafu.


  1. It's neat that we can do shikantaza off the cushion as well as on. At least, it seems doable except when a lot of thinking and concentration is required - e.g. having a face to face meeting to discuss strategic plans. Perhaps with practice, even that might be possible.

  2. David, from what I can understand, thinking itself is not the enemy here. Thinking tinged with self-seeking is the enemy. Imagine the difference between a mathematician fully concentrated on solving a puzzle for its own sake, and one who is solving the same puzzle, but who's thinking about how others will think he's awesome when he's solved it, or how it'll advance his career, or make him better in some other way.