Zen Slaps

There are three main Japanese Zen sects : Soto, Rinzai and Obaku.  Each sect has multiple lineages and some lineages mix styles and create new styles.  Below I will tell about a few “slap” experiences I have had in each of these three Zen sects.  I have never identified myself as a Zen Buddhist but have attended these temples because of locality convenience and the chance to “sit” (the Zen way of saying “meditate”).

Rinzai Zen

I first practiced Zen for a short time in a Rinzai temple  in Madison, Wisconsin, where we faced a wall.  A senior would walk around the dojo and if he caught us drifting to sleep, we would get our shoulders slapped with a bamboo shaft.  This was very startling but not really uncomfortable.  It really did wake you up for the rest of the sitting.   In fact we could request a slap on the shoulders to wake ourselves up by raising our hands.  It worked just like holding your head out of a car window and slapping your own face on long car trips.  In Zen meditation our hands are held as in the picture above.  And if a person was drifting into sleep their thumbs would drift apart, and if they were daydreaming their thumbs would often tent up.  Either way,  those sort of hands would earn you a slap at my temple.

Obaku Zen

My first two years in Japan I spent much of my time at a Zen Temple in Kyoto doing Shorinji Kempo (Kungfu). This temple was of the Obaku Zen sect.

Our typical training went for about 3 1/2 hours and was composed of:

  • Dress in karate uniform
  • Scrub temple with rags
  • Short meditation
  • Training
  • Fighting ( short YouTube)
  • Longer Mediation
  • Massage (Shiatsu) (7 min YouTube)
  • Scrub Temple Again
  • Change back into street clothes

The temple was not heated so scrubbing was tough in the Winter, as was meditating after sweating and sitting on cold wooden floors.  For workouts we’d often run through the snowy winter streets of Kyoto in our bare feet and thin uniforms.

This sect taught us to close our eyes during meditation, whereas Rinzai and Soto teach to keep the eyes half-shut.  During our meditation we were told to stay aware.  A senior member would walk up and down between the long row of practitioners as we sat on the hard wooden floors with no cushions.  He would carry a long staff and without warning he would slam the staff flat on the wooden floors.  If you were day-dreaming during the meditation, this would startle you and you’d jump.  I took me about 3 months before I stopped jumping and started paying attention.  Even more startling was the large loud bell used to end the long meditation which also was meant as a slapping wake-up call for those not paying attention.

Soto Zen

Years later, in the Soto temple where I have practiced in Pennsylvania, there was no slapping or startling to rouse the sleepy meditator.  There was only the little soft reminder bell half-way way through the sitting.  I miss the slaps!  :-)

Question for readers:  If you have practiced meditation and had similar slaps to help you pay attention, tell us your story or what you feel about this.  Note, Catholic friends may have had a ruler across the knuckles, but that is a bit different.  ;-)

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Zen Slaps

  1. Chris

    In korean Seon, it is very similar to Rinzai. well, kind of. You do get hit with a bamboo stick if you are sleeping, although I never heard about people putting their hand up to ask for it. also, depending on the position someone is in, the hands aren’t required to be held like that.

  2. @ Chris : Thanx. Sounds the same.

    FYI readers: Zen came from China where it is called “Chan”, in Korea it is called “Seon” and in Vietnam it is called “Thien”.

  3. In our tradition, in regular sitting, we get kyosaku once per round of zazen. We have to request it by gassho’ing as the stick-wielder walks by.

    On retreat, the zendo master walks around once per round, more or less, at a random time, and administers kyosaku as s/he sees fit. It is possible to opt out by telling the zendo master beforehand, in which case you’ll have a little piece of paper on your zabuton making note of that.

    I prefer relatively hard slaps, and I find them invigorating, especially on full-day sittings.

  4. I have had hits on the shoulder during Zen retreats. In that sangha, hitting is always requested by the sitter with a slight bow when the person with the stick walks by. I always wanted to be hit when I was falling asleep, because I could only ask for it when I was already awake :)

    When I visited Korea I picked up a nice zen hitting stick. It is a short stick made of bamboo, with a split so that the two sides smack and it makes a really loud satisfying sound.

    Also, I love how Zen Master Seung Sahn uses his stick during talks. Have you seen that?

  5. @ Petteri
    I prefer hard slaps too. But then, I like martial arts. I also slap myself hard while driving. :-)

    @ Alywaibel
    I just watched a few Seung Sahn videos — I think I saw the slaps — standing in front of the practitioner who bows forward to receive.
    Is your zen stick now on the wall, in a corner or used?

  6. Pingback: Zen Stream | Information Central Photographs

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