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.

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