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”).
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.
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
- 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.
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.