The Shock Therapy of Zen Masters

In China and Japan, Mahayana Buddhism assumed the distinctive shape of Ch’an, better known by its Japanese name Zen. While the Zen tradition has become famous for its ideal of balance and harmony, it has harbored some of the most radically nonconformist minds in the premodern world. The Sudden School of Zen is associated in our minds with the shock tactics used by the Zen master to jar the student out of “consensus trance.”

Thus, the ninth-century master Lin-chi (Rinzai) instructed his disciples to slay everything that stood in their way of enlightenment, not least the Buddha himself. In his school, physical beatings, shouting, and agonizing paradoxical responses from the master were and still are a common occurrence.

The Japanese teacher Gutei responded to all questions in the same manner: he simply raised one finger. When one of his students was once asked by a visitor to explain Gutei’s teaching, the student likewise raised one finger. When Gutei heard of the incident, he sliced off the student’s finger. Screaming with pain, the young man ran off. Gutei called after him, and when the disciple glanced back, the master gave him his famous single-finger gesture. Legend has it that this stopped the young man’s mind completely, and he experienced sudden enlightenment.

We surmise that in that moment the student was able to heartily laugh at himself. Zen acknowledges laughter as a sign of freedom and authenticity. The seventh-century Chinese madcap Han-shan, who was too eccentric for the monasteries of his time and was constantly evicted, achieved fame for his uproarious laughter. Likewise, the fierce expression on Bodhidharma’s face is a put-on. It conceals huge laughter.

Source: “The Shock Therapy of Zen Masters,” from The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, by Georg Feuerstein

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