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Did the Buddha use the kyosaku1?

If not, why do we?

(asks “Zen News” - Autumn 2009 - the magazine of the International Zen Association UK, IZAUK)



Well, Buddha wasn't against it, if that’s what you mean, but we don't know if he actually used the stick during meditation himself. At any rate the stick existed during Shakyamuni’s time, and there is good reason to believe that he did use it 2.


It wasnt yet called a kyosaku, of course––and it didn’t look much like one either—it was much longer in those days, and it wasn’t made out of oak but out of bamboo.


In those days the ancient masters sat on a high seat with the disciples around them in a circle. The reason it was so long was because this way the masters could wield it directly from their seat and catch them by surprise.


Like I said, it was much longer than a kyosaku and it wasn’t administered only on the shoulders, but on the knees. And perhaps sometimes on the head and on the back and on the butt as well, depending upon which part of your body you made available to the master.


Of course, if you didn’t wish to offer your head, or to offer anything at all, not even a fingernail, then you could always sit out on the periphery. And why not? Sitting on the periphery had its advantages, and too it was safer; but it had its disadvantages, and they were capital: It kept you, the disciple in question, far from the master, at least during meditation.


In those days the stick hadn’t yet been ritualized, it had nothing written on it, and it wasn’t placed on the altar like it is today. Today we have "maku mozo, no illusions please", or some such phrase written on it, and it is highly respected. It’s considered to be the sword of Monju, the sword which cuts through torpor and ignorance, and it is treated as such. At least in the dojos where it is still used. But even in these dojos we get a somewhat watered down version of the stick, the light paddle on the shoulder, and rarely administered by surprise any longer.


To receive the kyosaku nowadays, you have to ask for it first. Otherwise the practitioner could very well go to the authorities and you and the dojo might get into trouble. This almost happened in the Paris dojo on the Rue Keller in the early nineties. One of us was even taken to court. But since the head of the AZI at that time apologized and promised we wouldn’t do it again, the case against us was dropped.


Nevertheless, during Deshimaru’s time, we never knew when we might get hit. And it kept us awake and attentive to what we were doing and to what was going on in the world around us, a real satori you could call it. We were in the dojo, the master was present and we never forgot that. Anyway, it was a big shock to get hit that way, and the reactions were not always favorable, especially from those who felt that receiving the stick unsolicited was quite unjust.


They hadnt done anything wrong, and look at what happened, they got hit anyway. And by surprise. From someone with a stick, and from the back as well. So as I said, there exists the danger of being brought before the judge to account for this socially unacceptable behavior, and that’s precisely why many dojos these days have forbidden its use.


kyos02So there are those who are frightened of getting hit, and those who are frightened of the law. Then too there are those who suffer, not so much for themselves as they do for others. And in favor of peace and love for their fellow practitioners everywhere, those who suffer for others have single-handedly taken on the role of tolling the death bell.


“We have finally succeeded in getting rid of the stick (kyosaku) for good, as a gesture in favor of peace.” writes Fischer, abbot in the Suzuki line in San Francisco California, Tassajara and elsewhere. “We do not use it anymore. In the zendo, we feel a much more friendly and compassionate atmosphere, and people seldom sleep.” 3.


Well, all this is a pity. What kind of an education are we getting today anyway? And what kind are we giving? And not just in the dojo either? But beyond the dojo, in the world?


It’s not just the monk or the nun who needs to receive the kyosaku these days, but the whole world needs to receive it, and I’m not alone in thinking this way.


The old Zen Master Kyozan Joshu of the Rinzai school who is now over a hundred years old, says from his dojo on Mt. Baldy in California: “In American education the keisaku is gone. Where is the keisaku? In American zendos too, where is it? Maybe it will come to pass that the keisaku will be banned entirely.” 4.


Of course I think he’s right. Nowadays everybody should receive the kyosaku (and not just the Americans). And you ask why? I think that those who are really interested in this matter of suffering, one’s own or another’s it’s the same, well maybe what Master Deshimaru said on the subject could be of use. “They do not understand,” he once said, “the kyosaku tears out suffering at the source.” He also said: “Modern civilization is in error. It seeks to weaken the human being...” and finally, “dignity must provoke surprise, fear. Saintliness is sometimes very frightening...” 5.




Rei Ryu Philippe Coupey (2009/03/31)



1Kyosaku, lit. “wake-up stick.” Used during zazen to hit the trapezius muscles (between shoulder and neck) of practitioners disturbed by drowsiness or mental or physical agitation. In general it is the practitioner who asks to receive the kyosaku. The kyosaku is not a form of punishment but a way to help restore the normal condition.


2 I Shin Den Shin review # 33


3 Tricycle Review 7/99


4 Mt. Baldy Newsletter, winter 2001


5 from Deshimaru’s Daichi text, vol one p20; & from his Eiheikoroku text, pp46, 245 & 247, all from l’ Edition Intergrale

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