In the Blue Cliff Record, Case 32, a monk named Jo asks Master Rinzai, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” In response, Rinzai grabs the monk and slaps him. Why?

I gave a talk about this koan at the Village Zendo, March 11, 2018. I explain what all the hitting and slapping is about in Zen. There’s a lesson in this story, about sustaining our own meditation practice over the long haul.


Good morning. I’m Jiryu. I’m a senior student at the Village Zendo. Last week I was talking with some of the other senior students about how we give Dharma talks. What’s our intention? And I heard two good pieces of advice. One was from Seizan. You said something like—I think that this was advice that you had gotten from Roshi—‘When we give a Dharma talk, we should come up here, encourage people to practice, and then go back down.’ (Laughter) I think that’s a good attitude. And then the other thing I heard is from Shinryu. He said that, ‘You can’t give better or worse Dharma talks. We just reveal ourselves as authentically as we can manage, to the sangha.’ So, I’m going to try to do those two things. You can tell me whether I exceed my mandate or not. Don’t tell me if you thought my talk was good because I don’t care. That’s not the point.

Do you want to do a koan? Let’s do it. This is Blue Cliff Record 32 and the title of the koan is, “Standing There.”

So, it’s about a monk named Jo and Jo is a student of Master Rinzai, this is in China around the eighth century, ninth century. Jo asked Master Rinzai, “What is the great meaning of Buddhist teaching?” Getting off his meditation seat, Rinzai grabbed Jo and gave him a slap and pushed him away. Jo stood there motionless. A monk who was standing by said, “Jo, why don’t you bow?” Just as Jo bowed, suddenly he was greatly enlightened.

So, Jo’s question, “What is the great meaning of Buddhist teaching?” Most of the koans start with somebody asking this question of somebody else. And there’s a hundred different ways to say it. But it’s all basically the same question. It’s the question we have here. It’s the question I always have. How do I understand what I am, what this is and how do I practice that wisdom? How do I live a passionate and ethical life that expresses that wisdom, for the sake of everybody? What is that?

And Jo, it’s not the first time he’s asked it but you sense, maybe, from the outcome of the story that this is the time that he just really had to know this answer. This was the moment of just, the end of the line for him. And what does Rinzai do? In answer to his question, he grabs Jo, slaps him and pushes him away.

Hakuin comments later that he thinks that Rinzai grabs Jo with his left hand and slaps Jo with his right hand. So, you’ve got two things at once. You could wonder whether Hakuin is reading too much into this, but I read a lot into this also. I think that these three actions are important. Grab and hold still. Slap and push away. Because this is the whole Zen method in a few seconds of comedy.

This is what we do in Zazen, we hold ourselves still. I rush around all day, getting and spending. And then I come here and I grab myself and hold myself. And over time, you know, if you really hold yourself still, if you learn the basic physical technique of sitting still, feeling your breath go in and out, touching your thumbs together, the mind quiets a little bit. We don’t stop thinking entirely for the most part, except for a moment here or there, but we definitely can quiet down. And with training, we can be a little bit more successful at that. And that creates a space for something to happen. It might be a sound, or just sort of in the midst of the quietness, some sudden insight occurs. Some useful thought among all the trash suddenly hits home. That’s the slap.

It’s not that Rinzai is punishing Jo. That’s never what this is about. Even when we say, “30 blows,” it’s not punishment. This isn’t some nun rapping you on the knuckles. Jo asked, “What is the meaning of Buddhist teaching?” And Rinzai slaps him and (snaps) for a second, Jo is completely in the moment. He’s so shocked. There’s nothing between him and this. That’s Rinzai’s answer for him. He brings him to, for a moment, that wisdom. And then he pushes him away, right? You can’t stay there. We’re human beings, we think, we plan, we speak. We don’t just sit and stare at the wall all day. So, you get that insight in the midst of the quietness. Then you’ve got to go out and be again. So, that’s step three, as Rinzai pushed him away.

Now, Jo is not that quick on the uptake here. He’s just standing there. You can’t receive some sudden realization, whatever it might be, and just sit facing the wall with it and enjoying it for yourself. It’s tempting, right? We heard the story about when Buddha had his fantastic enlightenment. His mind was blown. He said, “I and all beings are simultaneously enlightened,” but then he just sat there for a week. I think he sort of wandered in circles around the tree for a little while. He didn’t know what to do next. This is Jo’s experience as well. He needs another push. And that’s what this bystander monk, this nameless hero of the story, offers him. He says, “Jo, why don’t you bow?” And the koan says, “The moment Jo bows, he is greatly enlightened.”

Whenever I read this in the koans, it used to make me really jealous. Like, how did he get that prize? You buy one lottery ticket and suddenly you’re a millionaire. What happened to this guy? And can it happen to me? If so, why hasn’t it yet?

When I was younger, I spent a year at a monastery in Southern California. Our sangha member Kojin is there now, also spending a year there. I did it when I was a lot younger and I brought to it this sense that I needed to buckle down, stop thinking, mash my mind down into the ground and if I did that long enough, that (snap) I would be greatly enlightened. And what I thought that meant was I would never have any problems ever again. I’d be happy forever. I’d realize one thing that would explain everything and I would have no more doubts. Life would be perfection from that point forward.

But there’s a couple of mistakes. One is, what kind of effort was I making when I sat that way, grinding my teeth and trying to just erase myself? In Zen, we talk a lot about “The Effort of No Effort,” and it sounds very mysterious, like all of these sort of Zen paradoxes. It’s got to be effort, right? It isn’t easy to meditate at all. It requires quite a bit of effort. So, where’s the “No Effort” in that? But then, when we see all of that effort, what is it actually that we’re trying to do? We’re trying to stop trying. We’re trying to no longer seek a certain feeling, a certain outcome.

It’s actually a lot simpler than it sounds. It doesn’t have to be this barrier. I think that “The Effort of No Effort” is the effort of being brave, of accepting what happens when we stop trying to control what we experience. “The Effort of No Effort” is courage, facing our feelings no matter what happens, no matter what anger or fear or anxiety or worry comes up. We let it happened and we confront it. That’s “The Effort of No Effort.”

It’s natural for worry to come up. Yuanwu, commenting on this koan, wrote, “If you arouse your mind, even momentarily, anxiety over the material world will come up first.” That’s Yuanwu, an ancient Chinese monk, more than a thousand years ago. And he wasn’t even the first to say it. He was quoting the Surangama Sutra, which was already 300 years old when he quoted it.

So, what I’m getting from this is it’s not modern life that’s stressful. Being a human being is stressful. And I want that to stop. When I hear that somebody, just because he got slapped, is greatly enlightened, what I think that means is he stopped worrying forever. It’s like he got the lottery ticket and I want that, too.

After I’d been at the monastery for a year and didn’t win the prize, I was angry. I resented Zen for taking a year of my life and not turning me into this serene brick that I wanted to become. (Laughter) I was still a human being and that meant that whenever I aroused my mind, anxiety over the material world kept coming up first. And to this day, it still comes up like this. So, what I have to practice is the bravery to let that happen. Every half hour after every half hour. And, you know, sometimes I’m still making the old effort of pushing my thoughts away and trying to be peaceful. And sometimes I’m making the effort of no effort, having the courage to really face that.

So, Rinzai. He holds Jo still. He slaps him and pushes him away. And holding ourselves still so that we can receive this slap of insight is crucial. And being pushed away is also crucial. I’ve sometimes read stories about monks who spent three years, ten years in a cave in silence. Not just Bodhidharma, there are modern people who still do this. And my personal opinion about that is that it’s a waste. It’s definitely not what I admire when I read about it. I’m not inspired by those stories. I’m inspired by stories about people who function in the world, who use that insight for the sake of others, who do something, who make a change. Not with the attachment of requiring it to be perfect as soon as they’re done, but with the commitment to do their best. That’s how I want to live. That’s how I want to use my training.

It’s not going to be easy, ever. No matter how many big or little enlightenments you get. I certainly had hundreds of moments of insight and for me they haven’t been like what I imagined “greatly enlightened” means. I held myself still, I received a little strike of insight and Jiryu was slightly enlightened. (Laughter) A little bit more maybe than last time. I’m not sure. But these are worth the effort. And you also have to see clearly that Jo’s experience is not insufficient before he bows and sufficient after he bows. Jo standing still and doing nothing is enough. Jo not knowing what the heck is going on and asking, “What is the meaning of Buddhist teaching?” is also enough. He ought to function, he ought to use these insights. And when his friend calls out, “Jo, why don’t you bow?” That’s very important. Jo needs to do what’s natural. He needs to continue doing the appropriate thing for the moment. And that moment, the right thing is to bow because it’s polite; it’s the end of the conversation.

When he bowed before he had his great enlightenment, that was the meaning of Buddhist teaching. When he had his great enlightenment, he bowed as an expression of that insight, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an expression of that insight before. He’s just getting a little closer to experiencing that for himself. Either way, it’s enough.

I mean, it’s not really enough, right? It’s not enough the way I want it to be. It doesn’t mean that Jo doesn’t have any more problems. When we say that practice is enlightenment, it doesn’t mean that it feels that way. It doesn’t mean that as soon as you sit down, sparks go off inside your head and you go flying up on a spinning, glowing lotus like in the movie about Dogen, with light coming out of your ears, farting unicorn dust. (Laughter) That’s what I want. It doesn’t happen. But it’s still enough. And it’s still hard. It’s hard every day. We need each other. We need teachers. We need the teaching to sustain us. But don’t give up, because what you need is here for you.

I was thinking about this last week. I had to do a ten mile run. It seems like every Dharma talk, I’m complaining about how much I hate training for half marathons or how much I hate running half marathons, because I’m a human being and I suffer at stuff because it’s never satisfactory. Buddha made that claim 2,500 years ago, that that’s what being human is like, and I haven’t seen any evidence to disprove him yet. But I’ve seen a lot of confirmation, and one of them was last week when I was running and I was hating it.

It was towards sunset. I ran out from where Keishin and I live on 14th Street, across the Manhattan Bridge, down into Williamsburg, down Kent Avenue past those Hasidic neighborhoods and their weird balconies, and out to Atlantic Yards and then back. The sun was setting and the wind was picking up. It was getting cold and dark and my hands were freezing. It just felt like this run was never going to end. As I came up over the bridge, crossing back into Manhattan, the setting sun hit the face of the Empire State Building, bright orange, and shone on me like it had bounced all the way across the city just to shine on me.

It’s cheesy. It was a cheesy moment, but it’s what I needed. And if we have the faith to receive it, we will always get what we need. You’ve been here for me when I needed you. Roshi has been here when I needed her. I will be here for you when you need me. Just the way that Rinzai was there for Jo when Jo needed Rinzai, and gave Jo whatever he needed. Some days, a slap across the face. Some days, Rinzai grabbed Jo and hugged him. Whatever it was that Jo needed, it was there for him. And it will be here for you, too. So please, don’t give up.