Why Were Zen Masters So Violent?

Monasteries and retreats are helpful, but they’re artificial environments. Everything is regimented and controlled and regular life isn’t like that. I’ve read dozens of stories from Zen teachers chastising monastics for over-indulging in tranquility. When put to the test, most of them crumble because their peace was conditional.


By John Lee Pendall

Zen teachers were violent because people are dumb.

We tend to get so stuck in our ways; the stick helps unstick us. Our minds get so clogged with BS that it can be difficult for things like lectures and studying to get through the deluge. Studying, rituals and meditation were supposed to be helpful means for us to Wake Up. Unfortunately, they can also keep us spinning circles if we cling to them—and we’re definitely going to cling to them.

Seeing that pattern, old Zen teachers started using hits, jabs, shouts and enigmatic (but direct) statements to cut off a moment of thought. When our minds are derailed and plopped back on the ground, that’s a great opportunity to Wake Up.

Zen practice involves experiencing one genuine moment in our lives. Just one.

One moment when we see through all of our stories, preferences, motives, and views to what life is like without them. Of course, that one genuine moment lasts the rest of our lives because it’s the only moment there’s ever been; there’s no second moment. There’s just—This.

Also, pain can be a useful part of practice. That’s especially true if you live in a monastery and have gotten used to the aches associated with sitting. Monasteries and retreats are helpful, but they’re artificial environments. Everything is regimented and controlled and regular life isn’t like that. I’ve read dozens of stories from Zen teachers chastising monastics for over-indulging in tranquility. When put to the test, most of them crumble because their peace was conditional.

Imagine being a blissed-out monastic whose needs are all provided by the community and can sit and meditate all day. Then someone walks up and asks, “Who are you?” The monastic says a name, and then the person slaps him in the face. That sting would probably reverberate through his mind, and rattle everything he built on that shaky ground. All illusions of progress and attainment gone in a second. Then we remember that dealing with pain is an aspect of practice.

We can’t do that if we ignore it or cover it up with illusions. We need diligence, not delight; equanimity, not ecstasy.

Unfortunately, the slapping and shouting routine became, well, a routine. Instead of using it authentically, Zennists turned it into a formula that they could mimic. The obscure student-teacher dialogues were put into books and approached like a college curriculum.

So, before we go off trying to emulate the tactics of long dead teachers, we have to ask whether they’re still relevant or not. 90% of the time, they’re not. Each generation of Zen practitioners has a certain mindset that comes from their culture. Once the culture that formed that mindset is no longer around, then the methods created to work with it are no longer relevant.

Zen teachers used shouts and slaps because that fit with Chinese culture at the time, with the cultured mindset students brought with them to practice. It became less and less effective with each generation, totally losing its usefulness after 150 years or so. But, people are people, and we try to keep things going, usually long after we should’ve stopped.

I don’t think hits and shouts are relevant for the modern West, but a little brashness or aloofness might be helpful at times. We’re so used to being rewarded and punished for things. We bring that expectation into practice as well. When a teacher doesn’t reward or punish you, that really knocks the mind out of its familiar territory.

A huge part of practice involves not being moved by punishments and rewards.

We can’t be our genuine selves if we’re constantly shaped and shifted by operant conditioning. We’re going to have a heap of traits that other people have piled onto us since the day we were born, never knowing what’s original to us. So, I think a straightforward, brick wall style is one good fit for this time and place. That’s a modern equivalent of Linji’s blows or Yunmen’s one word barriers.

We’re also huge fans of the everyday mentality, teachers who just live and act like normal, down-to-earth people. These are two sides of the same coin, really. Just like how in ancient China the hit-people-with-sticks and gently-wake-people-up-with-metaphors movements both existed at the same time, the brick wall teachers and everyday mind teachers can both exist in the West.

What’s important for students is that we look around, just like people did back in the day. And it’s important that teachers start a dialogue with each other. If there’s one thing Zen can’t afford to lose, it’s the open, communal vibe. Teachers would exchange letters, and students would visit different temples. Zen can’t thrive if we put it in boxes; it has to be able to roam.



We need diligence, not delight; equanimity, not ecstasy. ~ John Lee Pendall Click To Tweet


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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John Pendall

John Lee Pendall is a featured columnist, editor, podcast host, and co-owner of the Tattooed Buddha. He's also a composer, musician, poet, self-published author and Novice Chan Priest.

He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.

Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".

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