The night is bitter cold, the temple an icebox. Winter grips the land and the monks shiver. A wanderer arrives, hoping to defrost a bit, maybe have a cup of tea. Problem is, the fire’s gone dead and there’s no fuel left, not even a twig. This frozen, road-weary guy finds a nice big wooden Buddha statue in the hall and sets it ablaze, warming his stiff hands over the flames. The temple boss chews him out, but that’s to be expected. Nonchalant, the wanderer asks for two more statues to burn.   

Maybe you’ve heard a version of this before? It’s a classic Chan anecdote dating back to 8th-century China, an allegory with a powerful message: we must not mistake the teacher for the teaching; we must avoid iconography’s trap; we must always recall that the sacred resides behind and beneath its formal symbols. The wandering monk’s name is Tianran, which translates as “Spontaneous.” A fitting moniker, it was given to him by the master Mazu, who recognized early on that his disciple was going to grow up to destroy shrines and images, to reduce them to a fine white ash.

OK, that’s all fine with me. But what happens, I wonder, when we keep our thinking simple and take this story at face value—when we put the lessons aside and allow ourselves to come in from that dangerously cold darkness, stand in the heat, and stare down into the Buddha’s glowing embers? What happens then, when the story ceases to mean something and simply is something? Might there be a teaching in the non-teaching of just thawing oneself out?

Over the past couple of winters I’ve made a number of long wilderness trips that have greatly enhanced my appreciation of fire—its beauty, its mystery, and especially its vital presence. If the temperature drops to 20 degrees below zero and your home is a nylon tent with feathers of frost growing on the walls, believe me, the blaze will provide more than a cozy mood. It will melt snow into drinkable water. It will dry your socks and shirts. It will sanction your survival, keep you alive. In such extreme conditions, everyday confusion is replaced with ice-crystal clarity: I am a warm something or a hypothermic nothing. My warmth is my being. Food is fire, clothing is fire, fire is fire. Everything is either fire or fire’s opposite.

The evening routine goes like this: About an hour before sundown you stomp the snow into a little flat pad with your cross-country skis, set up the tent, and head off to explore the surrounding woods, gathering fuel by hand or with a hatchet and saw. It takes many armloads to build your pile, and by the time you’re done it’s dark, the sharpest stars you’ve ever seen cutting the black sky overhead. You arrange your backpack beneath your butt for insulation, make sure your food bag and cookware are within arm’s reach, then lean in and strike a match.

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