What’s With All the Slapping?

Illustration by Bertall.
Illustration by Bertall.

I was trying to find a story for a friend, a Zen koan about a master slapping his student. They were walking through a field and a flock of geese rose up, and the student commented how beautiful they were. Then the master slapped him, and he experienced a moment of satori. In that moment, he said, “They were always here!”

I don’t remember where I read the story or when, but it has always stuck with me. And trying to find it, I came across a number of Internet threads wondering why there is so much slapping and hitting in these stories. A bunch of such stories came up related to this search, and I remember a bunch more.

Sometimes, there is more than slapping. In at least one story, there is talk of corporal punishment for disobedience. In another, a challenger smacks a master across the shins with his staff. Left leg today for being wrong, right leg tomorrow for being right. Suddenly, I was remembering tons of such violence from a group of people we have stereotyped as being peaceful.

So, first I have two caveats. Number one, I don’t want to say anything about Buddhism or Zen Buddhism or anyone else’s religious practices—only this thing with the slapping, what it might stand for from my peculiar perspective. Second, that the violence in these stories might well be a cultural artifact—our cultural artifact. These are the stories that strike us (pun) as unusual or strange and therefore wondrous, or even wonderful. So, they are the ones we translate, read, remember. And I, after all, didn’t search Google for stories of Zen masters not slapping their students.

So, all that said… and thanks to Louis Hoffman and Ryan Hunt for those cautions:

The story I remember is about satori. Satori, at least as I understand it, is a sudden revelation sometimes but not necessarily in some moment of extremis. In this moment, the perspective shifts from one point to another. It is temporary but might hint at a budding state of enlightenment (if you believe in such things). Think of it as driving by a long wall, the kind they put up to keep freeway noise from neighborhoods. Imagine the wall had a gap in it, maybe 20 feet of gap. Driving by, you get a glimpse through the wall. And a second later, the glimpse is gone. Maybe you remember it later, but probably it fades from knowledge.

One of my favorite such illustrations comes from Frank Herbert’s Heretics of Dune, and involves no slapping:
“There was a man who sat each day looking out through a narrow vertical opening where a single board had been removed from a tall wooden fence. Each day a wild ass of the desert passed outside the fence and across the narrow opening—first the nose, then the head, the forelegs, the long brown back, the hindlegs, and lastly the tail. One day, the man leaped to his feet with the light of discovery in his eyes and he shouted for all who could hear him: “It is obvious! The nose causes the tail!”

Now if you read the series, you know this is a story told to highlight the ignorance-posing-as-wisdom of the desert people in the novels known as Fremen. Is it meant to make them look foolish. But it still perfectly illustrates the concept of satori, that taking of a new and perhaps naïve perspective. After all, awkwardness and naiveté are sometimes signs of a highly cultivated beginner’s mind.

So. What about that slapping business?

Let’s take this whole thing out of the context in which people have authority over other people, a time and place when hitting was acceptable. What it represents for me here, now, and today, is the suddenness of inspiration. The shaking nature of revelation. The reality-twisting, gut-wrenching feeling we get when our notions of what is real are lost and replaced with a new way of seeing things, even for just a second or a few seconds or as long as you can really remember a dream.

That’s the slap. The satori in the stories requires some disturbance of the ordinary course of events and slapping brings that to pass, maybe. But really the slap is what is happening to the person as they experience the moment of revelation, the peak experience into enlightenment and perhaps back out again.

My boss when I worked in developmental disabilities used to wonder if the occasional fight between clients, while something to be avoided whenever possible, might serve as conditioning for one or more of the parties involved. Specifically, he would say, sometimes a smack in the mouth is a natural consequence for bad behavior. But what if that smack in the mouth is a desirable consequence of months or years of internal work? What a wonderful gift a smack in the mouth can be.

— Jason Dias

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