The word kyosaku is found in modern Japanese, but is rarely used in its Buddhist sense outside the zendo. A glance at a standard Japanese dictionary will turn up various definitions for the characters kyo-saku, but not reference to the “encouragement stick” mentioned in English-language Buddhist reference works.

The Stick in Zen Theory and Practice

T. Griffith Foulk

It is Zen’s proud claim that it alone, of all Buddhist traditions, has conveyed the Buddha’s awakening in an unbroken line from master to disciple, “from mind to mind,” without making use of any texts, verbal teachings, or other expedients. At the same time, however, classical sources give the impression that Zen masters actually used any and all means at their disposal—enigmatic words, gestures, shouts, and blows—to bring their disciples to awakening.

The classical accounts of Chinese masters contain numerous anecdotes in which they make judicious use of sticks to strike their disciples. In some stories, this treatment is said to bring on realization. More often, it simply indicates the master’s rejection of the words spoken by his student, who is judged to be caught up in delusion.

The meaning of blows in classical Zen hinges on two conceits. The first is upaya, the Mahayana concept of “skillful means”—devices used by a bodhisattva to lead beings to awakening. Such devices, however deceptive or harsh they might seem, are always said in the end to be informed by wisdom and motivated by compassion.

The second conceit is a metaphor likening the spiritual authority of a Zen master to the civil authority of a magistrate. Consider the following remark, which appears in the biography of the ninth-century disciple Chun Tsun-su:

Seeing a monk coming, the master said, “[Yours is] a clear-cut case, but I release you of the thirty blows [you deserve].

The master’s use of standard legal terms—”case” and “thirty blows”—implies that he sits as judge of another’s spiritual attainment and finds the monk lacking. Medieval Chinese magistrates were empowered to judge accused parties and to mete out punishment—often consisting of a set number of blows from a cane—on the spot. This story does end with the master actually striking his disciple, but it is well to note that in Zen literature, such blows are as much a rhetorical device as a record of actual behavior. Scholarly commentaries on “old cases”—koans— frequently employ the expressions “I strike” and “thirty blows” to indicate that portions of a dialogue are guilty of delusion.

In contemporary Rinzai Zen, the master receives disciples for dokusan consultation holding a stick called a nyoi (Sanskrit chintamani, “wish-fulfilling gem”). Chiefly an emblem of spiritual authority, the nyoi may be used on occasion to strike. Such blows are interpreted in the context of Zen’s heritage in legal rhetoric, and indeed may be seen as a kind of ritual reenactment of it. Any blows given in dokusan are also regarded as skillful means, aimed at helping the disciple cut attachment to deluded concepts.

This brings us, finally, to the sticks used in Japanese Zen meditation halls today. The Rinzai keisalzu is a flat, tapered stick about three feet long, typically made of oak, wielded with two hands like a baseball bat. The Soto kyosaku, made of hardwood, is also flat and tapered, but only about sixteen inches long and held in one hand. Because sitters face the rear wall of the meditation platform in Soto practice and the center of the room in Rinzai, the procedures for use of the stick differ in some details, but the basic principles are the same.

On the one hand, sitters may request blows on the shoulders by raising the hands in gassho as the hall monitor passes with the stick; such requests are typically motivated by pain (a blow to the shoulders can take your mind off how much your legs hurt) or by drowsiness (it can help wake you up). On the other hand, the monitor may observe a sitter nodding off, slumping, or squirming from pain; in such cases, the offender’s shoulders are tapped with the stick to indicate that he or she should “request” attention.

In both traditions, the monks who carry the stick are senior figures in the monastic bureaucracy, although not of the level of an abbot or Zen master. They wield the stick in the interest of communal discipline as well as for the encouragement of individual sitters. A typical entry in the rules of a Rinzai training monastery has only this to say:

When handling the keisaku, keep a close eye on those sitting in zazen, and strike them when they need it, regardless of whether they are dozing or not.

In the Rinzai monastery where I trained in the mid-1970s, according to an unspoken etiquette, monks who were sitting earnestly and well were shown respect by being hit vigorously and often; those known as laggards were ignored by the hall monitor or given little taps if they requested to be hit. Nobody asked about the “meaning” of the stick, nobody explained, and nobody ever complained about its use.

T. Griffith Foulk is a professor of Religion at Sarah Lawrence College

Kei, also read as kyo: to admonish, warn, caution; to take care, take precautions, guard against.

Saku: Whip; cane.

—From the Kadokawa Kanwa Chujiten or Kadokawa Chinese Character-Japanese Dictionary.

Definitions from Buddhist sources in English

Kyosaku or Keisaku: Stick of encouragement carried by dojo leader and applied to the shoulders upon request to stimulate concentration.

—from The Practice of Perfection by Robert Aitken

Kyosaku: “Wake-up stick”; a flattened stick used by monitors in the zendo to strike acupressure points on a person’s shoulders, relieving tension and promoting wakefulness.

—from The Eight Gates of Zen by John Daido Loori

Awakening Stick

Sallie Jiko Tisdale

The first time I carried the stick, I shook all over. I had entered my year-long term as shuso, or head trainee, in my sangha only a few weeks before, and had spent that time hurriedly coordinating the spring sesshin, getting used to my new seat, remembering a thousand new details. I had little time to worry about the kyosaku, a symbol of discipline, authority, and self-containment. When I picked it up the first time, I felt like an impostor.

In my sangha, the kyosaku is used only during sesshin, given only to those who ask for it. I am one who often asks, who welcomes the brief, sharp blow on tense shoulders, on an unsteady mind. The kyosaku is sometimes called the encouragement stick, and I sometimes need encouragement. Its very sound has power for me; the sudden crack in the silent hall can turn me into a child, bring up tears and shivers, dreams. It can ring like a bell, calling me awake from across the room.

But to carry it was something else, a responsibility greater than I’d imagined. In the evenings of sesshin, when one long period of zazen followed another and we descended together into the living silence of those hours, I would have to rise when I least wanted to move at all. I would follow a prescribed pattern through the hall: bowing, turning, approaching the altar, and taking the stick; bowing, turning again and again, walking in slow attention up and down the rows.

As I walk behind, a person makes gassho; our shadows mingle. I turn to face her back; we bow together in the dim hall. Unbidden, her name enters my mind. I am shaking, hesitant. I strike, and struggle against the urge to touch her. Night after night, the same walk, the same slowly diminishing anxiety, a woman’s peculiar fear: Am I too hard? Am I too soft? I resist the urge to soothe or be soothed. Her name comes again, we bow, and I turn and move on, struggling now to let her go.

One day during the fall sesshin, I was upset; I thought then that my teacher was disappointed in me, that I had failed him. This was also part of my practice then, to be struck by these hard feelings.

The bell rang, and we sat, and I had to rise in terrible reluctance and shame and pick up the stick and walk. I was false, artificial, a cheat. And when I passed my teacher, he made gassho and bowed forward, offering his back, his trust. My heart opened in gratitude for his kindness and love. I struck him, and moved lightly on.

This is a gift. This is service—to risk a mistake, to move when everyone else is still, to be hard when hardness is required. What is essential in the practice is to meet each moment completely, to be whole, to meet each back, each shoulder, each need as required. To be nothing but the stick and the blow. To leave it behind. The walk became a skating dance, all rustles and tiny whispers, punctuated by sharp sound.

The last time, I cried when I put the stick down. Done with that dance.

Now, someone else carries the stick behind me. The new shuso, who sometimes wishes he didn’t have to rise in the silence and move through the stillness, walks slowly up the row behind me in a faint rustle of robes, and I see his shadow approaching. I make gassho, we bow together, I bend and turn my head away, he touches my shoulder with the stick and strikes me awake. We bow and he turns away, moving on.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale is a lay teacher with the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of several books.

Somebody coming along and hitting you with the kyosaku can be a very alive expression which frees you where you were stuck For example, the kyosaku may knock you out of your nice, confident sitting.

—Roshi Bernie Glassman

Designated Hitter

Lawrence Shainberg

Two days before assigning me the job of wielding the kyosaku, or so-called “helping stick,” Sensei gives a wonderful talk about it: The alertness the receiver derives from it if properly struck on the pressure points; the way in which its sound unites and energizes, not only the junkei and the one he strikes, but the zendo as a whole; most important, the egolessness—the lack of aggression and anger required of anyone who means to wield the stick correctly. Properly used, he explains, the kyosaku offers a perfect embodiment of generosity and, for that matter, of Buddhism itself, as defined in the Sixth Paramita: No giver, no receiver, and nothing given. “Between the junkei and the person he or she strikes, there is no separation. Who is the subject, who the object? Who strikes? Who is struck? Who feels the pain? Who the energy?”

Two days later, as I stand from my cushion and move toward the altar to take the stick in hand, these lofty teachings are very much in my mind. I’m slightly intimidated, of course, at the thought of striking flesh instead of the pillow on which I’ve been practicing, but what is my anxiety beside the responsibility I’ve been given—the chance to give my sangha-mates a jolt of energy and to fulfill the Sixth Paramita? Bowing, lifting the stick, I feel as if I understand for the first time what it means to practice for others rather than for myself. For an instant, I look back with disdain on the selfishness I’ve left behind. Who knows? Maybe my stick will be the spark that carries someone over into kensho!

Meanwhile, I am anything but unconscious of the fact that I’ve been granted permission to stand and stretch my legs while others continue sitting. In a practice that has offered me endless evidence of my tiny, chattering mind, my cowardice, laziness, and insincerity—not to mention the courage, wisdom, and sincerity that, as any dharma student will tell you, are many times more disconcerting than their opposites—I am suddenly charged with prowling the zendo, gripping a long maple stick the way a drum major grips his baton, or, more to the point, an infantryman his rifle. For all the wonderful texts I’ve read about the “man of no-rank,” I am suddenly, as I view it, a “senior student,” a potential monk and—who knows?—a roshi-in-waiting.

Adjusting my posture, I lift the stick and begin my measured walk between rows of students deep in zazen. I’m evaluating posture. I’m thinking who looks drowsy and needs to be awakened. I’m thinking,What, afraid of a little pain? And you call yourself a Zen student? Mostly, though, I feel as if I’m involved in some sort of popularity contest and, as one by one they do not (by placing palms together) ask for the stick, I feel as if they are rejecting me. Not the dharma, not the Sixth Paramita, not the stimulation of the stick or the distraction it can sometimes cause or the dependency it can become. Me. They’re rejecting me and what I have to offer!

Ah, but what’s this? My first customer!

Tall, bulky, and red-faced, he is a man in his mid-fifties here for his first sesshin. At the sight of his gassho, I feel as though doubled in height and so inflated with holiness that I’m in danger of floating out of the room.

What we forget, I think, when we enter these practices is that, even at the very beginning, even within five minutes of sincere pursuit of them, they uproot dualistic mind, dissolving form and exposing us to formlessness—and that liberating though this may be, there is always a response, a recoil, a grasping after form as the dualistic mind seeks a new object to reestablish itself. For me, now, the stick is that object. My customer is that object. As I cradle the stick in my thumbs and gassho in return, I am filled with love for him and for his meaty shoulders, which make a sound beneath my walloping stick like a baseball flying off the bat of Mark McGwire. What was that about the Sixth Paramita?

Is there no one swinging this stick now? No one’s shoulders receiving it? No separation between my customer and me? Why else does this first strike resound in my mind even now? Believe me, it still hurts.

Lawrence Shainberg is a writer and contributing editor to Tricycle. His most recent book isAmbivalent Zen: A Memoir.

The Kyosaku is most effective for those who do not want it.

—Deshimaru Roshi

The Kyosaku-man must look, must observe. See who moves, who disturbs. The Kyosaku-man is not a marionette. Nor is he a dog-killer. He must sense those whose minds move. He must observe the mind. Those who practice zazen are not dogs.

—Deshimaru Roshi

Putting Away the Stick

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

I remember my first time inside a zendo. I loved the feeling. The atmosphere—profoundly quiet, but supercharged with energy. The way everyone sat absolutely straight and motionless, dressed in black, in the very precise, dim room. The ambience was much enhanced by the use of the “encouragement stick” that was carried during almost every period of zazen.

A long, thin, flat hardwood stick, the kyosaku was marched up and down the aisles with great ceremony by the experienced students. If anyone fell asleep during zazen (as happened more than occasionally), the monitor would pounce Whack!whack! One good hit on each shoulder and the wary offender was awake. The sound, repeated unexpectedly but regularly throughout the period, made the feeling in the zendo electric.

The kyosaku, the older students would be quick to tell you, did not actually hurt, despite its dramatic sound. If the monitor hit you properly, the experience was invigorating. I frequently requested the service and found this to be true. Later on, I carried it myself.

Occasionally, of course, monitors messed up. When their aim or attention flagged, the results could be painful. There were also now and again monitors whose intentions were not always good; who, subject to minor fits of sadism, seemed to miss more often than others.

In addition to this anomaly, there were two other important downsides to kyosaku practice. Because the zendo was open, and newcomers were constantly coming to sit, it was impossible to orient everyone to the kyosaku. I used to wonder what such first-timers thought—or felt—when they heard a gunshot-like report coming out of nowhere as they peacefully meditated.

It also became gradually apparent, quite oddly, that the kyosaku, and the samurai spirit it fostered, served to increase rather than decrease sleepiness in the zendo. It is difficult to say why this is so, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that externally imposed discipline has a deadening effect on the spirit, and the kyosaku, whatever its real purpose and intention, was understood as external coercion by many people.

The Gulf War of 1991 was a very upsetting time in our sangha. Several of our sangha members had relatives who were in the combat zones, and signs of the almost gleeful response to the war in the society at large were everywhere. Much was said and written in the press about how the war was in a sense an answer to Vietnam: this time, we were winning. In the midst of that time, our abbot, feeling that the kyosaku was a symbol of the violence that is never far away from any of us, and has certainly been a part of Zen history in Japan, put the stick away for good, as a gesture toward peace.

We no longer carry it, the zendo feels much more friendly and compassionate, and people rarely sleep.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a writer and poet, serves as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He is currently at work on a book entitled “Taking Our Places: Mentoring Young People Coming of Age.”

Alexis, don’t move! Otherwise we will give you the kyosaku.

…Oh, he does not understand.

He is only five.

—Deshimaru Roshi

The Black Dragon’s Jewels

Natalie Goldberg

I see the shadow of Katagiri Roshi moving across the white wall, holding the kyosaku up in front of him— approaching, then passing me, as the morning light barely seeps through the east-facing windows. I am tense—it is so early and there are so many hours ahead. I put my hands together, asking him to use it on his next round.

Because I have on coarse long underwear, then a thick sweater and a wool shawl, I can barely feel the wood placed on my right shoulder—the signal to get ready I bend my head to the left. Swack! The sound is loud. Then another hit. Now the left shoulder, head tilted to the right. Really, the sound is more like a thump—I have on so many clothes—winter is what I remember in Minneapolis. Roshi moves on. I sigh. It was a moment’s diversion, a slight entertainment, but still the time of sitting ahead is vast.

The kyosaku has not been used anyplace I’ve sat since Roshi died.

The kyosaku was part of a whole path I entered. Something foreign, Japanese, that I found—of all places—in the Midwest. In this huge heartland I discovered another heart—Oriental, straight-backed, precise, organized—down even to drinking the hot water you cleaned your rice bowl with. How I loved it. It appealed to my laissez-faire upbringing; I longed for structure, to be told what to do. I found freedom in form. I could drop deeper into wildness.

What do I think of the kyosaku?

Actually, Roshi didn’t technically use a formal kyosaku. He employed a meditation brace that he acquired as a young monk at Eiheiji monastery. Late at night, as he sat alone in lotus position, it stood up on the floor between his legs and was held under his chin. A sly way to keep upright—if he fell asleep he wouldn’t fall over. Later, he cut it in half; it became “our stick.” Written on it in Japanese from the Blue Cliff Record was, “The Black Dragon’s jewels are everywhere.”

He once broke it, hitting Nonin, one of the big poet monks in our sangha. Then Roshi obtained an even smaller one. In his last two years he stopped using it altogether. In a lecture one evening, he muttered, ”I’ve become tired of hitting you like old cows.”

But for most of my training with him, I didn’t think that much about it. Instead, I tried to immerse myself in practice. “When you walk in the mist, you get wet,” Dogen said. The stick was supposed to wake us up. I put my hands in gassho; sometimes it was voluntary—I’d ask for it, and sometimes I was nodding off so deeply I wasn’t even aware I was in a zendo—Roshi would come up behind me and place it on my right shoulder. For the thirty seconds of the ritual I was alert. Then, usually, I entered broken sleep again.

Was it ever really helpful? Not that much, but—and here I’m going to use a word seldom associated with Zen training—it was fun. Does that mean I didn’t take the practice seriously? I didn’t take the practice. It took me. Why should I discriminate? lnstead, I was happy—and very lucky. Minnesota winters at 5 A.M. were mostly abysmal; my personality did not fit in the Midwest; I was going through a divorce with a man I loved. But something was happening at that old house on Lake Calhoun, and I couldn’t stay away.

At that time I was a poet. I told my writer friends the hottest poetry was happening at the zendo. They never came, but however carelessly I watched my own mind in meditation, I minutely studied and examined Katagiri’s mind when he lectured every Wednesday night and Saturday morning, when he sat, walked, smiled, ate, bowed—and yes, also how he held the kyosaku and the way he used it. It wasn’t then, in my thirties, that I understood how good my life was, but fourteen years later, I know something magnificent happened to me in that cold Minnesota town.

The kyosaku was a component of a tremendous training that gave me my life. Would I use it now? Probably not—it didn’t matter to me that much. I didn’t worry if Katagiri misused it or if it meant incorrect power—I trusted him.

But there’s no Katagiri now and I’m a woman of fifty. What is important? How can Zen continue to transmit the practice heart in our culture?

Meditating at 4:30 A.M., sitting without moving, holding the chant cards just so, eating oryoki style, bowing to the zafu, lighting incense, sewing a rakusu—all gave backbone and radiance to my early, nebulous life. Notice I did not include the kyosaku in the list above. It’s not really good or bad, but sleep was sleep—nothing woke me in the zendo but my own energy. And as a diversion, the kyosaku was another pleasant connection with the teacher I loved. Maybe its use in practice is for the one who wields it.

Kyosaku? I could let go of it, but what takes the place of what we decide doesn’t work? And who decides what to eliminate? Too often, I make a decision out of opinion, convenience, laziness. How do we drink the blood of ego, spit it out and wake up?

Natalie Goldberg is a writer and painter. Her last book is Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World.

There is no denying that for those Westerners unable to disabuse themselves of the notion that beatings with a stick under any circumstances are an affront to their dignity, the kyosaku will always remain a menace rather than a welcome goad.

—Roshi Philip Kapleau

Sticks and Stones

Barbara Chiko Sovino

“No zazen for me, never,” I told my boyfriend. “No thanks. Not some macho Zen sadist hitting me with a stick.”

Once, that same boyfriend came home from sesshin with his T-shirt glued to his shoulders with dried blood from the blows. I told him, “Good thing you were never a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. They exploded starved stomachs with raw rice and water. Now you’re getting beat up to get enlightened? Perfect.”

I yammered on. He moved into the Zen center, and I moved to California. Out here, everyone did Zen, even women. I had never met a woman Zen student, but in a social service bureau east of LA, I worked alongside a woman who had a Zen teacher in San Diego. One day I asked if she ever got beat. She looked perplexed. I clarified by asking if a monitor had ever hit her with a stick. She said, “Yeah, when I ask for it.”

She said it so casually, like no big deal. I asked, “What do you mean, ask for it?” She explained you only get hit when you put your hands together to signal the monitor. When I told her I had thought the Zen monitor would come around and whack you on the head, the shoulders, whenever or wherever he wanted, she laughed. She explained that only happened in times of yore, or at least not in any California zendo she had been in. The way she said it made it sound like it was a truly archaic practice. And her dismissal of any descriptions that included “sadist” or “macho” created an ocean of distance from my own fears and preconceptions. I said I wanted to try it.

That was fourteen years ago. Sometimes today in the zendo, I ask for the stick to keep me awake; sometimes for its salutary effects on the strain in my shoulders. I can hear from the first crack whether the monitor is new and inexperienced or whether he/she is engrossed in his/her own power trip. With my back to the monitors, I can tell—or so I think. Some monitors are sadistic and macho and misanthropic. Some are not.

But here’s what’s really amazing: How easy it was, once I began to sit, to see where the real pain lay. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me? Wrong! Names hurt. Labels kill. Confronting yourself is ten times more horrendous than two pain-relieving raps on the shoulders. Physical pain can obscure, hide, and immunize us against the real pain caused by the mind and inure us to the responsibility that we must claim for wallowing in our suffering. The mind, in fact, can cause more suffering than the body.

The stick? If it can help to awaken, I say, bring it on.

Barbara Chiko Sovino is a social worker in Los Angeles.

If a learned teacher is present, he will immediately see clearly that the student is in such a state [of dullness] and will strike the meditator with the flat stick, thus clearing away the confusing dullness; a great many are thereby awakened to the truth.

—Master Hsu Yun

Fighting the Stick

Deshimaru Roshi

Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982) studied at the Soto monastery of Eiheiji and received dharma transmission from Kodo Sawaki in 1965. After founding the Association Zen Internationale in Paris in 1967, he was recognized by the Soto Zen hierarchy as kaikyosan, or head of Buddhist teaching, for Europe.

After hearing that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism was to be found in Zen, I went to the Engakuji Temple, a Rinzai Temple, in Kamakura for a sesshin. We got up every morning at 2 A.M. and did zazen until 6 A.M. And at night there was no sleeping. We did zazen outside with the mosquitoes. And then the kyosaku—I received the stick from morning until night, and my body had turned all red. Five days went by. I kept my patience. But then, on the sixth day, the Kyosaku-man, who must have been sleepy like everyone else, hit me with the stick—not on the shoulders, but on the top of the head. I got angry and jumped up and hit him back. We fought. Now, in Rinzai temples, as everyone faces each other while in zazen, they all saw the fight. Everyone jumped up in order to stop me. But I was a champion swordsman at the time, and I had no difficulty keeping them off me. Of course, this has nothing to do with religion; it is just violence. Anyway, I had had enough, and so I went off to see the Master—who was in his room sleeping—and I woke him up and told him that I wished to leave, that I wanted to stop zazen. I told him all about the incident which had just taken place, and he laughed. “In the history of Zen,” the Master said, “no one but you has ever attacked the Kyosaku-man.”

In fact, this incident became famous—so much so that Japanese Rinzai monks were scared of me. And my own Master, Kodo Sawaki, would always warn the Kyosaku-man, “Watch out for Deshimaru when you hit him.” Consequently, everyone was afraid of me, and so I never got the kyosaku during zazen. The Kyosaku-men always kept clear of me. This is not so good. Later I came to regret that all this had happened.

From The Voice of the Valley: Zen Teachings by Roshi Taisen Deshimaru, edited by Philippe Coupey.

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