A monk asked his teacher, “When the cold visits us, how can we avoid it?”

She replied, “Why not go where there is no cold?”

The monk asked, “Where is the place without cold?”

She said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, case 43

For many of us, it is probably hard to articulate why came to practice Zen, but it is safe to say, most of us started with some goal in mind, vague or otherwise. Though goals ~ like seeking enlightenment, wanting freedom, desiring to save all beings ~ bring us to the party, in the end, these ideas of what our life is or could be just get in our way. What we really are seeking is immersion. By soaking ourselves into a koan, we “forget the self”, as Dogen wrote, and set up a resonance with all things. And that immersion can be either cold, or it can be heat. The universe does not choose.

I recently re-read, with pleasure, a friend’s note on this koan from some years ago. Once a heavy smoker, when trying to quit he would get intense cravings for a cigarette. Rather than trying to avoid the craving by taking a cigarette, he turned toward it, noticing it, even enjoying it. In this way, he was able to break the habit (once again). That story made me think of my own cigarette smoking. Rather than give up smoking, I actually tried to take up the nasty habit several times over the years, with no success. I first began by lighting up my mother’s lipstick-ringed butts in the ash tray of the old Studebaker station-wagon. Then my friend Donny stole some of his father’s cigarettes, and we smoked one sitting in the thick oleander bushes along Warren Road. Somewhere along the way I picked up a corncob pipe, but the cherry tobacco tasted too sweet. In the end, I failed. But not at every vice. In high school, my friend Gary and I bought a jug of Red Mountain (now called Carlo Rossi) Red Burgundy wine. We hid the jug in my neighbor, Miss Gertude Hibb’s, bushes, and on weekends would pull it out and take a few slugs. That bad habit I have gotten better at, unfortunately.

Another friend of mine, suffering a debilitating spinal disease recently said, “Of the Ying and Yang, I like the dark. It helps me more.” It helps because it is immersive. When he is in pain, there is nothing but pain, keeping him awake at night, dogging him during the day. It is his life, and he has begun to bring his koan into that life with him. In recent months, perhaps because of that, he says that his heart has opened up to a world of great joy that he describes as “unconditional love for everyone and everything.” Yes, immersion.