I once heard the first-hand account of a guy’s experience of learning meditation in a traditional Japanese Zen retreat in the UK, which employed eyebrow-raising teaching methods.
Whilst the students were sitting together quietly in group meditation, the little Japanese master would stealthily sneak up behind people and randomly hit them with a large stick and shout ‘What is the purpose of the stick?’ after each strike.
As you can imagine, this used to not only make people jump out of their skin but also a little anxious. The tension built waiting to be hit was often more uncomfortable than the strike. No-one had an answer for the master’s question, so the stick hitting continued.
After a few weeks of being regularly hit and shouted at the guy’s patience snapped one afternoon, and he completely lost his temper. In a boiling rage, he stood up, and towering over the little master he grabbed the stick from the master’s hands. He then started to repeatedly strike the ageing Japanese teacher, shouting ‘THIS is the purpose of the stick!’ after each strike.
Far from being angry, the master squealed with delight, yelling ‘That’s right, that’s right. You now understand the purpose of the stick’.
A few moments later, after the guy had vented his fury, much to his confusion and bewilderment the master instructed him to sit back down and continue meditating.
I’m sure you’ll agree that this was an unusual turn of events, however, I do understand what the master was trying to do. Allow me to explain.
The stick-hitting had three purposes.
There are many documented accounts from the early days of Zen that masters were using shock as a kind of training method to develop the consciousness of their students.
The belief was that in moments of complete surprise, the mind goes totally blank and a person’s conscious awareness is momentarily pure and disconnected from over-thinking. Masters would often startle their students with sudden shouts, bangs and in some cases, even violence. The goal wasn’t to actually hurt anyone, but to shock them into purer states of consciousness. There was one account of a master taking it a little too far actually pushing one of his students out of a window. The master then jumping on top of him screaming, ‘Now do you get it?’
This wasn’t seen as madness, there were occasions where this unorthodox method had actually triggered enlightenment for a few people. You could say it was a kind of tough love approach to spiritual development.
The master was essentially honouring this ancient shock method by using his stick. He was hoping that his students experiencing extreme surprise whilst they were in deep meditation would snap awake a higher state of consciousness due to being disconnected from their mind for a brief moment.
However, I’m personally not a big fan of this approach. There are no recent accounts of this method having helped anyone for the past few hundred years. I honestly believe that in the distant past, people’s minds weren’t as cluttered as they are today. In the modern age of T.V, corporate propaganda, commercialism and social media everyone’s minds are now so heavy and cluttered that these training methods aren’t as effective as perhaps they once were. According to the stories, people were reaching enlightenment left-right-and-centre back in the day, whereas now, it is rare. Humans and our culture have changed, which is reflected in the type of methods that are now needed for a person to successfully develop their consciousness. For better or worse, our minds have evolved; the methods used by Zen teachers need to honour and accommodate this change.
2) The stick’s purpose
The master’s question and delighted response after himself being repeatedly hit with the stick was an exercise in stepping beyond the habit of over-thinking.
The students never answered the master’s repeated question because they not only feared giving him the wrong answer (who could blame them), but also because they were over-thinking the issue. They were under the assumption that there was a deeper, philosophical reason behind the use of the stick. In their anxiety to be right they became lost in their own mental complexity in trying to solve what they assumed was a spiritual riddle. The mind likes to over-complicate matters, whereas in life, the most effective answers are often the most innocent and simple – hence the reason behind this lesson.
The master’s question was a trick, there wasn’t any deeper meaning attached. There was no hidden meaning behind the stick’s use at all, its purpose was simply to be used to hit people. Had a student stepped outside of their over-thinking mental processing, they would have seen the simple and almost childlike perspective on the stick and they would have answered correctly.
It took a student to lose their temper and strike the master with the stick for the lesson to hit home, which is why the master wasn’t annoyed upon being struck. The purpose of the stick WAS to hit… and that was it. No complicated philosophy, it was just a stick and its only purpose was to be a tool to hit people with. He didn’t care that he was being attacked, just happy that his student had indirectly stumbled across the correct answer. The answer wasn’t complicated; it was very simple with no over-thinking necessary. Often the easiest answer or solution is the correct one.
3) Anxiety management
Managing the tension created by the master sneaking around and randomly hitting students whilst they were sat with their eyes closed in meditation, was also a lesson in itself.
Modern life is stressful and as a by-product of this, many people experience intense anxiety. By creating a tense and anxious environment, the master was providing a training ground by which his students would learn how to not only manage their anxiety, but also how to remain mentally focused under pressure.
Meditating in a peaceful environment can be challenging enough, but meditating in a stressful environment requires a much higher-level of grit, the master was effectively developing the mental discipline of his students by providing a kind of intense meditation assault course. The more they practised managing their anxiety and focus, the more their training would benefit them during the day-to-day challenges of the outside world.
These training methods are admittedly a little unorthodox by modern Western standards and I personally wouldn’t use them during my own Zen workshops. (Hitting people with sticks is soooo last year, darling). I believe it to be just as effective and valuable to learn about these perspectives through discussion and story telling… but each to their own.
Perhaps some people are so attached to their mental programming that it takes being regularly attacked by an armed Japanese man in pyjamas to loosen the reigns a little?!