by Wendy Egyoku Nakao
A Householder Koan: Sam Comes in Out of the Cold
Sam was living a good life. He had been practicing on his own for about a decade. Everything in his life was going well: his relationship with his wife was good, his daughter was happy and thriving, there was food on the table, and his work was coming along. Everything was good. And yet, despite this, right in the center of himself, where he couldn’t help but notice it, there was a big empty hole. It made no sense to him.
Sam called his good friend Jolene and told her of his situation.
“Something is missing,” he told her.
Jolene replied, “Oh, honey. It’s just time for you to come in out of the cold.”
Sam laughed nervously, then asked, “What do you mean?”
Jolene replied, “It’s time for you to take refuge.”
Upon hearing this, Sam burst into tears. Later on, Sam said, “My entire aspiration for wholeness just came flying out. I knew what she said was true.”
An old friend in Dharma shared this story with me when we were talking about our spiritual journeys. Immediately, I said, “That is a wonderful householder koan.” He gave me permission to use it however I wished. By tweaking it a little and changing the names, I know that this is a koan that will resonate with you. There are many dharma gates in this koan through which you can enter, depending on where you are in your life right now. Let’s examine some of these.
“Something is missing.” Or, as many people whose lives seem to be going well say, “Something is wrong. I’ve worked hard and achieved so much, so what is this uneasiness—this big empty hole in the center of myself that I can’t shake off?” This can come over us at any age. For me, it was when I did my ﬁrst sesshin in my mid-twenties and felt deeply that I was on the wrong life trajectory. I had a home, career, husband, but something was off—something was off because I was not connected to myself. For Sam, this awareness arose in his thirties, and for you, when did this recognition that living out your agenda still leave a sense of something is missing?
Indeed Sam had so much going for him, including a good friend that he felt comfortable calling to share some-thing so intimate. She listened well and replied, “Oh, honey. It’s just time for you to come in out of the cold.” There is nothing like being seen. Someone sees you, resonates so deeply with your predicament. “Come,” said Shakyamuni Buddha whenever he spoke the Dharma, “Come see for yourself what is true.” Jolene said, “Come in out of the cold.” What is this cold ? The phrase “come in out of the cold” was made famous by John Le Carré in his novel, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” It means to return from concealment or exile, such as being exiled from one’s true self. It can mean “to return to shelter and safety, be wel-comed into a group.” For Zen students, it can mean return to the source, the very source of life itself. How do you do this?
Upon hearing Jolene’s reply, Sam laughed nervously and asked, “What do you mean?” Jolene said, “It’s time for you to take refuge.” It’s time for you to come in out of the cold and come into the Buddha’s house. It’s time to end the exile from the Self. It’s time to step into the wide, open space of Buddha Mind; to see your life from the wide perspective of the Buddha. It’s time to stop seeing your life and yourself from a limited telescopic view—time to step out of a narrow, self-centered way of living. You may not think that you are living in such a way, but look! Look closely!
In Zen, we say that our practice is to penetrate the Grave Matter of Birth and Death. Do you know its root? What is the source of this very life? The very nature of it?
It’s time for you to take refuge. In our Zen tradition, there are two primary forms of taking refuge. In Japanese Zen, we call it zaike-tokudo and shukke-tokudo. Zaike means staying at home; Shukke means leaving home. The word tokudo is translated in English as “ordination” or “initiation.” I am told these words do not accurately convey what it actually means. Today, we say that one takes jukai and receives the precepts, so it doesn’t quite convey the same sense. And for the priests, we say that one receives tokudo and becomes a priest, but one doesn’t leave home, so the sense of it is also not quite attuned with the original meanings.
The word tokudo is very interesting. It consists of two Chinese characters. Toku means “to attain or to acquire.” Do has several meanings depending on whether it is used as a verb or a noun. Both are important. As a noun, Do means “a ruler or a measuring rod;” as a verb, Do means “to carry across or to take over to the other shore or other side of the river.” In the case of zaike-tokudo, or what we now call jukai, it means “the ceremony for the householder to acquire a measuring rod to see how to carry one-self and others across the river of suffering to liberation.” So we are not just receiving the precepts and worrying about whether we can live by them or not. In fact, we are committing to something beyond the needs of ego when we take refuge.
When Jolene told her friend Sam, It’s just time for you to come in out of the cold… It’s time for you to take refuge, she recognized his need for a measuring rod that was beyond his limited view of his life. No matter how smart we are, we are always seeing things from an ego-centered view, aren’t we? Ego-centeredness is so pervasive. In the spirit of true spiritual friendship, Jolene invited Sam into taking refuge, into joining a community and practicing the Buddha Way together with like-hearted seekers.
What does a measuring rod look like and what does it measure? My rod is very whimsical. It measures my alignment with Not-Knowing, with Buddha Mind. Can I realign with this boundless, sky-like mind? Can I remember non-duality? Can I remember that nothing is fixed? It also measures my alignment with infinite connection, with the Dharma of inter-being. Can I realign with bearing witness in the most subtle and nuanced ways from the view of Buddha mind? Can I listen deeply by closing the gap with the person or very thing that I fear or despise? Can I stay connected to suffering? It measures my alignment with the Bodhisattva Vow to help everyone. Can I see myself and others on the raft crossing the vast ocean of suffering and being liberated all together as one body?
Upon hearing this, Sam burst into tears. Later on, Sam said, “My entire aspiration for wholeness just came flying out. I knew what she said was true.” Each of us knows this aspiration for wholeness—the aspiration to know who we truly are, to know that nothing is missing. In this exploration, we come to know the nature of the so-called Other. We come to know the nature of everyone and everything, all connected, as the wholeness of life.
Taking refuge carries us across the ocean of suffering to the other shore. Where is this other shore? It is right here, now. We are not, however, crossing alone. We are helping to take others across. This is the key point of taking refuge: learning how to help others. It is not easy to help others, but in doing so, we learn who we are; we learn what life is truly about. So when we come in from the cold, we take refuge in a way of living in which our aspiration for wholeness is realized by helping each other across the ocean of suffering. And that is enough to make us all burst into tears.
Roshi Egyoku is the Head Teacher and Abbot Emeritus of ZCLA.