Monday, November 25, 2013

Winter Buddha

I woke up this morning feeling a little "under the weather." Not quite sick, but not quite right either. When I went to bed last night, my apartment was warm. Waking, it was cold. This is how it goes, living in an old building with a middling heating system and a slightly cheap landlord.

It's not winter yet, but the past few days have felt like winter. Winter in Minnesota is a long slog, so much so that every moment which breaks through the icy grip on us is a moment worth celebrating.

However, many ways in which we Minnesotans tend to reject the dark, harshly cold days of January for example, are similar to how humans choose to reject whatever experiences and emotions they don't wish to experience.

In other words, our tough doggedness comes with a side of bitching and moaning.

I remember a story about Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi, during the early days of Hokyoji, a retreat center in southern Minnesota. He was doing zazen outside with a small group of students and it was cold, very cold. Someone asked Roshi how he was taking it, the cold I mean, and he responded something like "When it's cold, just be cold. When it's hot, just be hot." I can imagine this guy sitting in his robes with his teeth chattering as he said this. It's a pretty funny image, and also a quality example of not adding on to one's experience.

Talking about the weather is a common point of connection here in the land of 10,000+ (frozen) lakes. We use it as a gateway to bonding, an almost fool proof mechanism to bring ease between even the most dissimilar of people. But I think most of that talking is just adding on, and in many cases, in ways that promote rejection of what's present.

How to engage "weather conversations" differently?

Today, no answers. Just one frosty breath after another.

*Photo: Minnesota snow storm. December 2010.


Bob said...

There's a persistent theme that seems to run through Zen Buddhism to the effect that harsh conditions are more conducive to awakening, but is that notion really true, or more of a fantasy derived perhaps from the samurai-influenced Japanese? Buddha himself rejected the extreme approach, suggesting instead a "middle way". Pushed to the edge, one can certainly discover revealing stuff about oneself, but the same could be said about making love, for that matter. When I was living at Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery back in the early '70's, I watched monks sitting out in the snow late into the night, dressed in thin robes, performing "yaza". From what I could tell, most ended up with chill blains and various lung ailments, but none appeared closer to awakening as a result. Indeed, the zazen warriors who did it mostly exuded an air of superiority, as if to indicate that they were the "real practitioners", and everyone else was only making half-hearted efforts. Actually, one can find hard core types in any religion, but the Zen ethic seems to hold them in particularly high regard, as some standard to be emulated. The literature id full of admonitions in that respect, about willing to sacrifice everything for a taste of kensho. The seminal book "The Three Pillars of Zen" was instrumental in inspiring westerners with that do-or-die ideal, but if actually inspected, what we can discover is that, more often than not, the whole concept more often than not serves to reinforce a fantasy of the personal self-image, and hence actually runs counter to true awakening.

Nathan said...

Thank you Bob. I'm reminded of my early days at my own zen center, when we were under a different teacher who was ousted following a power abuse scandal. There was almost a contest to sit up through the night during sesshins amongst a few practitioners. Just to give one example. Sleep deprivation was common with the core group - not just during sesshin, but all year long - because the expectation was that serious students would show up every morning at 5:30am, and also would come to evening sittings and classes that didn't end until 8:30 or 9pm. We were trying to emulate elements of the monastic schedule, while being householders who'd have to head home and take care of whatever needed to be taken care of before trying to sleep, and turn around again early in the morning for another go around. I did this for several months, wanting to be in the "in crowd" - another problem in our sangha - and then the shit hit the fan with our head teacher. Fortunate for me I guess.

The weather here offers many tastes of extremes. Fiercely hot/humid in summer; bitter cold in winter. Tornadoes; large scale blizzards. In fall, often you'll have a shift from 70-75 degree high temperatures to 30-40 degree temps in a matter of days or hours even. It's certainly not all dramatic like this, but just enough that there's an edge in being outside sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan,

I'm struck by the word 'bitching.' In an effort to challenge gender oppression, I feel that even our language needs to be stripped of patriarchy, as even "Hey man" has the power to carry and reproduce patriarchy though normalization and frequency.

From one ally to another,

Nathan said...


I had to go do some research on "bitching," since I couldn't recall any specific arguments by feminists or others against the particular word, in that form. And after digging around, I still can't find any specific arguments against the word, although it's origins are from "bitch," which obviously is highly debated in feminist circles.

I appreciate that you called it out. I'm not sure what to do with this one, though. For some reason, the issues with the word "niggardly" come to mind here.

They aren't the same, but there's this issue of association I think which is confusing. Whereas "bitch" and the n-word have a clear and damnable history, the other two aren't as clear.

I don't have any attachment to the word, and can use complaining and/or whining in the future. But I think getting at oppressive language issues, even with the much more obvious words, is pretty complex stuff.