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.

From now until bed there’s only the ghost of your breath, the coyotes yapping in the distance, and stick after stick after stick, each placed with care, each disappearing. There’s only this light, this warmth, holding you close.

Annie Dillard might as well have been speaking of Chan Buddhism when she wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unselfconscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” For Dillard, the object of devotion was more often than not a muskrat or grasshopper, while those in the temple have traditionally preferred their own steady inhale-exhale pattern. Just about anything will work, though. It could be a ringing bell or the tingling sensation of your numb toes coming back to life. It could be a chanted mantra or the crackling, popping, hissing music of branches combusting.

In his well-known book A Zen Wave, Robert Aitken refers to a statement often made by Koun Yamada: “When you stand up, there is only that standing up in the whole world, with nothing sticking to it.” That’s elegant, but easier said than done. We are sticky beings, inside and out. Our minds are sticky. The question, then, is how to stand when we stand, sit when we sit, stare at the flames when we stare at the flames? Put another way: How do we behave plainly? How do we take one thing at a time? How do we slow down and center?

In my experience, fatigue works wonders. Try dragging a sled loaded with 50 pounds of gear and food—salami, cheddar cheese, chocolate, oatmeal, instant coffee, heck, even a bottle of whiskey on occasion—for hours and hours uphill though knee-deep powder. By the end of such an effort, nothing sticks to anything. Here is the blessed relief of a fire prepped, lit, and watched. Here is a monk-like fellow, his hood drawn, his stiff hands extended, his belly grumbling.

Eyes glaze. Heat pulses against flesh. Your focus becomes a passageway, a tunnel, a slide—and now you’re burn-ing, morphing into something other than your regular ego-self. Consciousness has, in a sense, been fed to the flames.   

The night is bitter cold, the temple an icebox. Shadows jump and orange light plays across the walls. Having chewed out the road-weary traveler, the temple boss looks into the embers and forgets what else it was he intended to say. Other monks gather around. They stand in a circle, mesmerized. Somebody goes to retrieve a second statue, then a third.

When I think of Tianran, of what his story is and not what it means­, I’m reminded of an evening when I was camped high up in the mountains, tired and happy and dazed. My socks were hung to dry on a stick stuck into the snow. A blackened pot of soup bubbled over a small fire. The kiss of whiskey was on my lips. It had stormed for three days—fierce winds, low visibility—but now that was over. Music of crackles and hisses and pops filled the ears. Water in the thermos smelled of smoke. Entranced by the crumbling red coals, I reached into my woodpile without turning my head, without even blinking, and pulled free an oddly shaped chunk of pine.

It was one of those outside-of-time moments, the white stars above, the temperature dropping, the Chan masters of ancient China at my side, their robes pulled tight against the dark. Balanced on my palm, smiling, was a twisty-grained Buddha. 

Hello, friend. 

With a little bow, I settled him on his pyre beside the pot of soup, then leaned back. A few minutes later he was gone, a new piece of wood in his place, and dinner was served.