Kyosakū- stick of compassion
Kyosaku means ‘blow of compassion’ or ‘warning stick’. This is perhaps one of the most widely misunderstood single aspects of our Zen practice. It seems irrational that one would voluntarily sit for long periods of time facing a wall, with someone else occasionally hitting them with a stick. But like many things in life, Zen is grasped only by doing it, not by hearing or thinking about it.
The use of the Kyosaku stick in Zen was developed over many centuries. you may have read stories of ancient teachers, such as the Rinzai Zen school, striking their students with a staff. This kind of activity was referred to as ‘grandmotherly kindness’. And the poor monk or nun usually didn’t recognize how kind it was until long afterwards, for example after becoming enlightened under another Zen teacher. You may have heard the expression, “I give you thirty blows of my staff!” so striking with the stick is considered the “direct teaching of Zen”.
While no one can fully explain the effect or meaning of the stick in words, please remember, it is not punishment. Its use is not an act of violence. And, you do not have to request it at all. It is simply an aid to our zazen practice, and it is a most compassionate one.
Many have asked that the Zen custom of the Kyosaku Be explained. The Kyosaku is a blow on the shoulder during meditation with the light stick carried by a Zen Priest. The blow is given during the meditation sessions when we feel our self becoming drowsy or one is having difficulty concentrating.
The Kyosaku is given only to those who request it, it is not painful, and it is very beneficial in clearing the mind and in making meditation more meaningful.
To signal the priest that you want to receive the Kyosaku, you make the gassho. That is, place the palms of your hands together in the position of prayer, and bow your head slightly in a respectful manner. The Zen Priest will see the signal and arise from his seated position. He will come behind you and tap your shoulder with the kyosaku stick two times lightly to let you know that he is about to give you the blow. You must then bend your neck and head slightly to the left so that your shoulder can be struck without obstruction. After you have received the kyosaku blow, it is proper to gassho once more to show your gratitude for it, and the priest will do the same behind you. This process is repeated again on the opposite shoulder, following the same instructions.
The purpose of the kyosaku blow on the shoulder, is to perfect one’s spiritual life. Like the gasho, anyone can make use of it. The kyosaku stick is to awaken one who has fallen from a high level of concentration because of drowsiness or distraction, or to help one concentrate who is having difficulty doing so from the onset. Its purpose is to further the entering into the world of enlightenment, and it is far from being a ritual devoid of meaning. It is a painless means of self-discipline, of which everyone should avail themselves during our meditation. The gassho is used to request the kyosaku, to show respect for its use, and afterward, to show gratitude for its benefit.
Whatever is distracting you, the Kyosaku can help. It is important that everyone understands that this kyosaku is not a punishment, but should be considered a means to help you improve your meditation. it is administered only at your request and is given solely for your benefit. For you, it should correct your posture, clear your mind, and be an excellent form of self-discipline. Without the kyosaku, it is not of Zen!
These things- chanting, receiving the stick, as well as offering incense, and making the deep Buddhist bow of gassho in honor of the Buddha, his teachings, and the community- are all in the manner of Zen.
In Zen Buddhism, your manner is a reflection of your inner spiritual life, just as the moon is reflected in a pond of water. If your inner life is calm, your movements and manner will be a perfect reflection of your serenity, just as a still pond reflects the shape of the moon perfectly. But if the water is rippled, the reflection of the moon will be distorted. It is important that you perfect your inner life, so that your whole being can never be separated from it. This is the life of the Buddha- one that is lived in true accord with the inner nature!