The Primitive Behaviour of Zen Masters:

The Essence of Bullying and Violence in Zen Tradition

Through Zen literature, it is possible to distinguish a consistent trend of masters' arrogance and bullying manner - exercising authority over younger disciples. Over-confidence (of being masters of knowledge) - has led to many examples of Zen masters behaving arrogantly and even in a violent manner.  

A master expresses the teachings he cultivated.  Zen literature lists a shocking account of examples, which reveal a primitive and under-developed mind of masters - expressed in their behaviour in detailed events (and which are accepted as part of the history and manner of Zen tradition).  As far as the following koans are proudly circulated, praised and admired, modern Zen is stuck into the field of their old masters:

Using the stick to exercise authority

D.T. Suzuki proudly mentions in his book "An Introduction to Zen", page 33, the behaviour of Ummon, whom he describes as "one of the greatest Zen masters who ever lived" - according to the book:

          "A monk came to Ummon and asked to be enlightened upon a certain remark by Gensha.  

          Ummon ordered him first to salute him in the formal way.  

          When the monk stood up after prostrating himself on the ground, Ummon pushed him with his stick,

          and the monk stepped back. The master said:"You are not blind, then".  

          He now told the monk to come forward, which he did. The master said: "You are not deaf, then".  

          He finally asked the monk if he understood what all this was about, and the latter

          replied "No, sir".  Ummon concluded:"You are not dumb, then".

Note the offensive feudal mind of one of the "greatest Zen masters, who ever lived", who - instead of enlightening a monk who asked him a question, ordered him to prostrate on the ground.  Why would this great master be in need of people prostrating before him - so that their head becomes on the same level of his feet? What is so great about such a master?

The master's arrogance did not stop at demanding prostration to educate the monk (of being inferior, a lower status).  It went further, and the master - without any consideration about the dignity of the person before him - used his stick to push the monk, who retreated back.  

D.T. Suzuki (who was inspired by this behaviour of one of the greatest masters) - did not elaborate further on the significance of that event; perhaps he thought that the event is so great that no further comment is required!  How do you feel, as a human being, when someone pushes you by a stick?

Slapping the face of disciple

One would ponder, why Zen followers lacked in courge to stand up against the sick behaviour of masters when it took place, but instead let it become a celebrated heritage of Zen history.  The reson for lack of courage in Zen master-follower's relationship must be the result of the spirit of domination and bullying over the mind of younger disciples.  Zen masters were capable of humiliating others in public before their peers (as the following event listed in Suzuki's book, page 22, implies).  Dare you ask - or the master would not only humiliate you openly, but would give you a slap in the face.

A young disciple asked a question about the Three Treasures in Buddhism.  All schools of Buddhism teach that there are three categories, called the Three Treasures, which should be most respected: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha (or Community of Believers).  Suzuki's book informs us, however, that essentially this Buddhist doctrine is "not important for Zen", and that there is no consideration of focus or respect to the three treasures.  

But a young disciple, who witnessed a master paying respect to a Buddha statue - was confused. Here is a master paying respect to the Buddha although Zen teaches that respect to the three treasures is not important.  For this reason, the young monk asked a question for clarification, and received not one but two slaps in the face:

          "When Obaku (Huang-po) was paying reverence to the Buddha in the sanctuary,

            a pupil of his approached and said:

          "When Zen says not to seek it through the Buddha, nor through the Dharma, nor through the Sangha,

          why do you bow to the Buddha as if wishing to get something by this pious act?".

          "I do not seek it", answered the master "through the Buddha, nor through the Dharma, nor through the Sangha.  

          I just go on doing this act of piety to the Buddha".

          The disciple grunted, "What is the use, anyway, of looking so sanctimonious?".  

          The master gave him a slap in the face,

          whereupon the disciple said: "How rude you are!".

          "Do you know where you are?", exclaimed the master, "here I have no time to consider for your sake what rudeness

          or politeness means".  With this another slap was given".  Page 22

Most people consider Zen as being nonsensical, nihilistic or absurd - and such criticism of Zen is about the theoretical (or intellectual) perspective of Zen ideas - but here: the criticism is from within Zen follower's mind about the mean level of manner of a master.  It is not about intellect of knowledge, it is about one's dignity as a human being.

It is a Zen disciple describing a Zen master 's manner as being rude.  Physically acting with violence and humiliating a young person - just because the young peson asked a valid question, this is a record of immature, rude and mentally limited master.  Disrespect to others takes various expressions in the koans, but slapping the face of questioners seems to be a tradition - as it is found in various koans:

          "When Shuko of the Ming dynasty was writing a book on the ten laudable deeds of a monk,

          one of those self-assertive fellows came to him, saying: "what is the use of writing such a book,

          when in Zen there is not even an atom of a thing that can be called laudable or not laudable?"...  ...  ...

          The monk still insisted.... Shuko, giving him a slap in the face said: "So many are mere learned ones,

          but you are not the real thing yet. Give me another answer".  

          But the monk made no answer and started to go away filled with angry feelings.  

          "There," said the master smilingly.  Why don't you wipe the dirt off your face?"

                                                                                                                     An Introduction to Zen, page 95-96

The mentioned koans are samples showing the bullying character of Zen masters, while other koans consistently present a similar spirit of masters 'education of younger monks' - and the phrase "I will give you thirty whacks" - is repeated in various koans within the "dialogue" of Zen master and followers, such as in Holstein's book (page 78) and in Suzuki's book (page 19, 38 and 63).

Pinching a Nun

In his book, "Pointing at the Moon, 100 Zen Koans", Alexander Holstein presents - in page 34 - the following "educational behaviour" of a Zen master, in his reply to a question posed by a visiting nun:

          "One morning, a Buddhist nun came to visit Ch'an master Chao Chau and asked him

          what the meaning of the "innermost mystery of all mysteries" - was.

          Chao Chau pinched her in reply.

          The nun was most indignant at this saucy behavior.

          "Do you still have this in your mind?", she asked.

          "No," roared the master, "it is you who still have this in your mind".

This juvenile and primitive action of a master (pinching the body of his visitor), mirrors his inner belief in his authority over others, justifying disrespect to their followers.

          But in his "Commentary", Holstein explains that:  

          "Through this pinch, Chao Chau prompted the nun to realise the fact

          that the innermost mystery for her was her own nature, her body, herself".

So, the master's pinching of the nun was a mere way to impartially "educate her", nothing else!

Shouting at and blaming others: Not only the master behaved with rudeness and immaturity, he still aggressively accused the nun (when she got angry: "Do you still have this in your mind?" ) - accused her of "wrong thinking" - that she is to be blamed for thinking that his pinching of her body was a signal from him for a bodily interest in her.  The master shouted (roared according to Holstein) - because his intrest was 'pinching for pure education' - and not for suggesting anything sexual with her: he wanted only to enlighten her about where the truth is, and blamed her for thinking "as a female".  

Holstein says in his Commentary:

          " she proved her blunder of dividing people into male and female'.  

So, she was to blame; it was her fault, and this is the way modern Zen practitioners judge the mentioned koan.

You are hurting me terribly!

The following koan appears in the "Introduction to Zen", page 54

          "Sekko asked one of his accomplished monks: "Can you get hold of empty space?". "Yes, sir", he replied.  

          "Show me how you do it" .  The monk stretched out his arm and clutched at empty space.  

          Sekko said: "Is that the way? But after all you have not got anything".

          "What then", asked the monk, "is your way?"       

          The master straightway took hold of the monk's nose and gave it a hard pull, which made the latter exclaim:

          "Oh, oh, how hard you pull at my nose! You are hurting me terribly".

          That's the way to have good hold of empty space", said the master.

The essence of this childish action of Zen master, behaving as a bullying kid in a schoolyard - was enforcing his domination over a younger person - a spirit that Zen apparently accepts as part of its heritage.  The mentioned koan was not a one-off event, other similar koans are also listed, describing the preferred technique of twisting the nose of younger monks::     

          "Hyakujo went out one day attending his master Baso, when they saw a flock of wild geese flying.  

          Baso asked: "What are they?".  "They are wild geese, sir". "Whither are they flying?" "They have flown away".  

          Baso abruptly taking hold of Hyakujo's nose gave it a twist.  

          Overcome with pain, Hyakujo cried out: "Oh! Oh!".  

          Baso said:"You say they have flown away but all the same they have been here from the very first". Page 59

Modern justification of slapping the face of younger monks:

the aim was to trigger their Enlightenment

What was the aim of described tradition of masters humiliating their monks (ordering them to prostrate, slapping their face or twisting their nose)?  We are informed by D. Suzuki that this manner of advanced masters was necessary to "awaken the younger monks, to induce an enlightenment or what is described as 'satori'.  And the younger monks themselves become masters later on, and they can follow the tradition:

          "These examples [of face slapping etc...] are sufficient to show what changes are produced in one's mind

          by the attainment of 'satori'.  Before 'satori' how helpless those monks were! They were like travellers lost in the          

          desert.  But after 'satori' they behave like absolute monarchs; they are no longer slaves to anybody,

          they are themselves masters".     page 64


Cutting a finger of a boy

It is hard to imagine that the story about master Gutei - proudly mentioned in Zen books - was a record of a real event. Hitting, slapping and twisting noses...these were actions involving two adult practitioners, but for an adult master to cut a finger of a boy - this is hard to believe that it really happened.  

But even if it did not happen, the mere fact that Zen master Suzuki - as well as other sources -  proudly convey this story to us - means that it is well accepted within Zen mind.  It is a revolting story, revealing how Zen teachings could turn masters and monks into robots, into zombie-like creatures, feeling nothing wrong in hurting others and causing pain:

          "Gutei's favourite response to any question put to him was to lift one of his fingers.  

          His little boy attendant imitated him, and whenever the boy was asked by a stranger

          as to the teachings of the master he would lift his finger.

          Learning of this, the master one day called the boy in and cut off his finger.  

          The boy in fright and pain tried to run away, but was called back.  When the master held up his finger,

          the boy wanted to imitate the master, as was his wont, but the finger was no more there,

          and then suddenly, the significance of it all dawned upon him".                 "An Introduction to Zen"  page 42

Was Suzuki trying to tell his readers by this story that the boy 'attained a sudden understanding' or a 'sudden insight' of the 'significance' of what took place?

How could this unknown number of readers of Zen literature, who helped spreading those koans of bullying and hurting - how could they perceive them as valuable stories conveying "wisdom", and not as descriptions of a sick mind?  

Apparently, the 'tranquillising techniques' of Zen system of practice can inhibit brain functions related to engaging genuine humanistic feelings.  


Author:  Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

Juvenile Mind of Bullying Zen Masters