The “awakening stick”, or kyōsaku, is used at the discretion of the Ino, the one in charge of the meditation hall in the Zen Buddhist temple. It is not considered a punishment, but a compassionate means to reinvigorate and awaken the meditator who may be tired from many sessions of zazen, or under stress of the “monkey mind”. Although the uninitiated may ask “do they use it to beat us?” the answer is “No”. Although it may look intimidating, it is actually an aid to meditation that allows one to “break through” the ego which is holding one back from deep existentialist Buddhist mediation. In this sense, the kyōsaku is one of your best friends.
It is difficult to be totally present in the here and now and leave behind our busy lives. When you get into deeper and more intense meditation you will encounter a battle with your ego which will try to prevent you from the realization of your true nature. The ego is attached to your world view or your identity, i.e., what you have constructed around you that defines who you are. If you let go of all the things you have struggled for, what happens? This is the point where the ego won’t let go of who you are. In essence, you will encounter a block. You will then need help to break through this block. That is when you will go into gassho, i.e., “palms of the hands placed together a slight distance away from your chin” and ask Abbot Paul to help you break through the barrier through the use of the kyōsaku. The kyōsaku is a tapered stick with a wide flat end which makes a sound which is actually worse than the tap itself. When you feel the light tap on your right shoulder (see top photo) from the flat part of the kyōsaku, you then drop your head to the left and bow to the administrator (in this case Abbot Paul) after being struck.
The first time you break through and encounter your true nature it is transitory. This is called Kenshō, the small enlightenment when you start to let go of the trivial things you thought had meaning and realize your true value. You are now on the path to the Satori, the ultimate enlightenment. At this point you start to appreciate the tools which deepen your practice and deepen your soul. And you start to recognize the simple things that are your tools. You bow to your cushion. You bow to the room where you meditate. But it is critical that you recognize why you bow to things. You bow to an image of the Buddha. Historically, Abrahamic traditions have taught that we should not worship graven images. But we are not praying to the Buddha. When we bow to a statue of Buddha we are recognizing that the statue is a tool to help us reach enlightenment. There is no Buddha. That Buddha is “Me”, my internal nature. Similarly, in Shinto shrines, the primary object is a mirror, which in some shrines is fixed at such an angle that when worshippers pray, they find they are looking at their own reflection. People are praying to themselves! But it’s not a case of worshipping your own ego so much as worshipping the divine within yourself.
When we bow to that thing, the cushion, we thank the cushion for helping us be present. We thank the kyōsaku for helping us be present. And in recognition of the value of these tools, especially the kyōsaku, the abbot carries it as an honorable object against his chest, cradling it using his thumbs. We bow to each other and thank each other for helping us focus as it is easier in a group to meditate, than to try to meditate alone. But you have to really want this.
Transcribed by Debra B. Kessler from notes taken during the Dharma talk delivered by Abbot Paul on November 25, 2017