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  • Writer's pictureTõnn Sarv

Three blows

Tozan went to Ummon. Ummon asked him where he had come from. Tozan said: "From Sato village." Ummon asked: "In what temple did you remain for the summer?" Tozan replied: "The temple of Hoji, south of the lake." "When did you leave there?" asked Ummon, wondering how long Tozan would continue with such factual answers. "The twenty-fifth of August," answered Tozan. Ummon said: "I should give you three blows with a stick, but today I forgive you." The next day Tozan bowed to Ummon and asked: "Yesterday you forgave me three blows. I do not know why you thought me wrong." Ummon, rebuking Tozan's spiritless responses, said: "You are good for nothing. You simply wander from one monastery to another." Before Ummon's words were ended Tozan was enlightened. Strange story, isn't it?

Yet there are thousands of such stories. They all end in someone's enlightenment.

What is so important about this? How is it possible to become enlightened in such a way? And why are such stories told and written down and commented on at all? There are whole books of these stories! Millennia of accumulation!

Enlightenment is a pretty big deal.

The day Gautama Siddharta became enlightened is celebrated everywhere in Buddhist countries and among Buddhists around the world. Hundreds of millions of people know that this is an important day and an important event. Even the tree under which he reached it is sacred.

Everyone strives for enlightenment, but only a few succeed. And when that happens, they start talking about it, they remember it, they write it down. Because, who knows, maybe someone will benefit. Perhaps someone else will light up when they hear or read about it. The story itself can be quite straightforward. But what makes it unique is that someone got enlightenment in this story.

It is often not understood how this happened. And then this story is commented on, explained, parables, aphorisms, poems are added to it. And these comments are, in turn, commented on. Still to better understand it.

Many Oriental texts are brief, aphoristic, poetic, and ambiguous, and not just these stories of enlightenment. Many comments have been written to the Vedas alone, analyzed down to the sounds, to the last detail. The Bhagavad Gita has received hundreds of comments, thousands of times the volume of this text itself. Interpretation, translation, and more. Daodejing has been translated into English alone in hundreds of different ways. The I Ching consists mainly of a few lines of poetry. Only the comments make this book usable.

Frequently, the comments are even more important than the text itself. There are texts that the average reader will not understand. These are to remember, for meditation, for reflection. And even then, their content and meaning may not be reached.

Who comments on these texts? Those who have understood them in their own way, to whom the text has said something, and who wants to share that understanding with others. Buddhism, or the teaching of the Buddha, originated in India. From there, it spread over the centuries to the surrounding areas, changing and evolving. It reached China and from there to Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. Everywhere it took on a fresh face as new and different schools, traditions, practices emerged. Not at all contradicting previous teachings and traditions, merely coexisting with and even supplementing them. Yet maintaining a distinctiveness, a continuity passed on from teachers to students.

It is quite challenging to say anything about Buddhism in general. There are so many different schools, traditions, teachings, customs, techniques, and more. There has never been central guidance, obligatory scriptures, liturgies, saints, rituals, prayers, routines. It is free to spread and pass from teachers to students, mostly orally.

In China and Japan, Buddhism acquired new colors and meanings, coexisting with other traditional religions.

One of the best-known transmitters of Japanese Zen Buddhism was D. T. Suzuki, whose books became hugely successful in the Western spirituality movement of the 1960s, where there was an enormous interest in all kinds of esoteric teachings, especially those from the East. It was a fashion disease in the '60s and later. Suzuki has the most merit points for spreading the Zen tradition. But also, he caused some problems.

As Alan Watts later wrote, "Suzuki did not know in what barren soil he planted his delicate azalea plant." And in another place, Watts mentions, "Where thoughts subside, Dao is left in the East, but emptiness is left in the West ..."

Anyway, this Zen madness spread and took on rather strange forms in the Western world. Westerners gained the impression that Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, was something fascinatingly simple and readily available. You just have to read these witty short stories about how a teacher has said something to his student or done something, then imitate them, and poof! You're enlightened.

In one such Zen story, for example, the teacher killed a cat in response to a student's question. Believe it or not, based on this story, these would-be Zen Buddhists in the West began to kill cats en masse, believing that this was the right Zen.

If you read these Zen stories, you may not realize that these stories may have been preceded by decades of study, work, practice, understanding, living. With turning points, reflections, re-understandings.

Saying that in Zen practice, there is no need to learn anything, that only one shock or fright is enough to reach enlightenment is the ultimate simplification, if not the lie.

But yes, Zen practices this kind of "shock therapy" indeed. It has been found to lead to enlightenment shortcuts. Longer-term techniques are mostly used in Buddhism, as well as in many other practices. But Zen has its own tricks.

It is typical, for example, to confuse a student with unsolvable puzzles, koans, or lightning-fast questions and answers. Spontaneous answers and solutions are valued much higher than logical discussions and solutions. Sudden, unexpected shots, stick blows, absurd reactions are very common in this practice.

Of course, all this was interestingly in line with the hippie movement, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and other trends prevalent in the West in the 1960s. Opening up one's "inner self," self-disclosure, the endless openness, the pain of existence, the outpouring of subconscious impulses, etc., seemed to have been used in Zen Buddhism for a long time. And some traces or repercussions from that time are still felt today. But now we finally come to this story.

This is a typical koan from the Chinese collection "Gateless Gate", written in the early 13th century. The story itself dates back several centuries earlier; the venerable teacher Ummon lived and taught in the 9th - 10th centuries. Tozan, who is a novice student in this story, later becomes the head of the Ummon school and the successor of his teacher.

There are many stories of Ummon, and they are quite well known. Such as this: The monk asks Ummon if there is a place where knowledge is useless. Ummon replies, "Knowledge and feelings don't care!" But okay. The story we're talking about started like this. Tozan went to Ummon... He went as he always did when he wanted to be taught. We don't know how long he had studied before, but not a little. Because without learning anything, it is not respectful to go to a new teacher.

It can be assumed that Tozan had enough awe. And readiness. And trust.

When a student goes to a teacher, he or she trusts that teacher completely. Unconditional trust in the teacher is one of the most important prerequisites for getting anywhere. In fact, the student takes care of his teacher all his life. In principle, the teacher could even kill his student if necessary. The stick blows, which are also discussed in this story, are very common in this practice.

Students voluntarily come under the absolute power of the teacher. Because that's the only way, they'll make progress.

There is in Mahabharata a story where a young man goes to an old martial arts teacher, asking him to take him as his student. The teacher refuses. The young man goes to the forest, builds a clay teacher statue, burns candles in front of it, and starts practicing in front of it. When the teacher hears about it, he goes to see it. The young man falls to his knees in front of him and promises to give him whatever he wants only to become his student. "Give me your thumb," says the teacher. Without saying a word, the young man takes a sword, cuts his thumb, and reaches out to the teacher.

Everything the teacher says is sacred. And everything must be obeyed unquestioning, no matter how strange it may seem.

In another story, somebody also went to the teacher to learn martial arts. He wanted to learn very quickly, but the teacher did not promise results until thirty years later. "Can't it be faster?" he asked. "It will only be ten years," the teacher promised. But the impatient student wanted to learn even faster. "Well, you can achieve mastery in three years," said the teacher. A week went by, months went by, almost a year went by, but nothing was taught. But the student obediently fulfilled all obligations. Cleaned, cooked, took care of the household, etc. He didn't ask for anything. He didn't complain about anything. He trusted his teacher. But once he was preparing to cook, he got behind a terrible blow. It was his teacher who whipped him. Then nothing happened again, for a long time. And the second time, several months later, he was suddenly hit again. Then the student began to be vigilant. He had learned that the blow could come anytime, from anywhere, from anyone. And then he began to develop very quickly, and he became a worthy master of martial arts.

One of Zen's practices is this surprise. You never know what will happen next. And it may happen that nothing will happen over the years. But you have to be ready for that. And at the same time be completely confident in your teacher. Ummon asked him where he had come from. Tozan said: "From Sato village." Woe to you if you don't know where you come from. You can't answer even the simplest question!

Did you not understand that as soon as you reach your teacher, the teaching will begin?! Right away, at first glance, at the first word, at first touch?

What's more: by the time you started coming, the tutorial had already begun. Because you knew where you were going, didn't you? And you were ready to learn. Ummon asked: "In what temple did you remain for the summer?" Tozan replied: "The temple of Hoji, south of the lake." Tozan is stuck in his mind. He has a long journey behind him. He hasn't really arrived yet, and his thoughts are in the past. He doesn't understand what's going on with him. It seems to him that he is asked simple, everyday things.

However, the questions are very significant. Where do you come from? Where were you? "When did you leave there?" asked Ummon, wondering how long Tozan would continue with such factual answers. The teacher wonders. He sees that the student is almost ready, but something is holding him back. "The twenty-fifth of August," answered Tozan. What is time, what is space? No, they're not discussing that. It doesn't matter. Space and time belong to the seeming world. It has nothing to do with teaching. All appearances must disappear in order for reality to appear.

But the student has not understood this. Ummon said: "I should give you three blows with a stick, but today I forgive you." These were terrible blows, though they were not given. But they hit Tozan painfully. Yes, Ummon could have whipped him without saying a word. But he didn't do it. He forgave Tozan, making him suffer even more.

What was Tozan guilty of then? - That's a good question. And Tozan himself thought about it. Tozan was in a different world than Ummon. He came and remained in the world where he comes, goes, is, and moves. He had not understood his teacher's world.

Ummon wanted to be on the same wave with him. He started a conversation with him. He asked where he was coming from.

Any other answer would have been better than the one Tozan gave. Even silence would have been better if Tozan hadn't come up with anything else. "I don't know" or "Far," would have been much better.

"I don't know" would have indicated that he did not know where he was coming from, because it was a misunderstanding, a wrong place, and that now he knows that he has come to the right place.

With the answer, "I come from afar," he would have shown that a great change had taken place in his world.

But Tozan's answers were too clear, too precise, too worldly to be on the same level as his teacher.

That's why he deserved a beating.

But because Tozan had been so consistent in giving his exact answers, so stuck in his thoughts, Ummon gave up corporal punishment and forgave him because it was just so surprising that anyone could come to him and be so stupid.

It's so stupid that it already looks brilliant.

The greatest wisdom may seem to be the greatest stupidity. The latter can be the first. Never decide on a first impression.

We forgive him. Let's give him time.

We look forward to seeing what happens next. The next day... Yes. Tozan had a long way to go. He was tired.

But he could not fall asleep.

Why, he thought, did Ummon want to cane me? As soon as I came, I haven't done anything yet, and I'm already threatened. "Why?" he thought.

I didn't do anything wrong. Ummon is a famous teacher and hard to get to. Still, he spoke to me and wanted to know more about me. I didn't hide anything. I spoke to him respectfully. I answered all of his questions. I wasn't deceitful about anything.

Will it go on like this? Today, he was just threatening. But tomorrow? And how long will it last?

And in what sense the word "forgive"? Maybe he couldn't be bothered actually to start beating me, so, therefore, said he forgave?

Or perhaps he still thought I was worthy of learning from him?

All right, Tozan thought, he wanted to punish me. But for what? Of course, the teacher can always punish the student, but in that case, he could explain what the student has wronged. So what was I wrong about?

Or did he want to draw my attention somewhere else instead? That is also possible. He should know what he's doing, right? But, in that case, why didn't he hit me? If he thought it right and fair, he could have done it. Maybe it would have helped! I would sleep peacefully right now, knowing that this is and will be the case. But he didn't do it. He "forgave". Why?

Ah, Tozan thought, what was he really asking? He asked where I came from, didn't he?

Maybe he wanted to know who came with me. Or who I've come in contact with there. Yes, maybe Ummom has some enemies in Sato, and that's why he wanted to punish me." But then he would have asked specifically about my recent company, right? The village of Sato is large.

He asked what kind of temple I was in. Maybe he doesn't like Hoji's management or teaching? Really possible. And he wanted to beat it out of me? But for some reason, he changed his mind and forgave?

He asked when I started coming. Did he think I came too slow? Or too fast? It sure seemed to make him angry!

Tozan tossed and turned but couldn't sleep.

We could go on and on about Tozan's thoughts on that sleepless night. We all have been in a situation like this before. Our thoughts circle without a conclusion. We are tense, anxious, stressed. We cannot calm down.

But why?

The tree releases its leaf. The dandelion lets its seed fly. The lizard pulls off its tail. Simple and easy.

But we live in the past and can't let go. You can't keep regretting forever, can you? Even those three canes weren't worth thinking about any longer. Or are they? Ummon knew what he was doing.

All his questions were directed to the past: "Where are you from? Where were you? When did you start coming?"

What does all this mean, really? – I came from where I came from, I was where I was, but now I'm here and moving on. The past is behind us.

The serpent's eyes are on his head. He's moving. He pulls his tail away. The tail has no eyes.

Ummon might as well have asked, "Where did you last farted?"

What is the significance of the past? All you no longer need is let go, left behind, and abandoned.

But Tozan didn't understand. Tozan bowed to Ummon... We don't know if it was easy for Tozan to get back Ummon's attention. We don't know how many other students there were. After the morning rituals, they all gathered with their teacher.

But no one has the right to speak to a teacher without permission. Certainly, others also had their concerns, questions, and wishes. We do not know how Tozan got the right to ask anything at all.

But he was given that right.

He bowed gratefully to the teacher. ...and asked: "Yesterday you forgave me three blows. I do not know why you thought me wrong." Yes. This stupid student is here again. He is tired, sleepy, tense. But he wants something. He has to get it. Ummon, rebuking Tozan's spiritless responses, said: "You are good for nothing. You simply wander from one monastery to another." What good is movement if nothing moves inside you? What's the point of limping from one place to another when you're standing still? If nothing happens in you, why do you live and move at all? Before Ummon's words were ended Tozan was enlightened. How did it happen?

We don't know that. But we can guess.

It was his selfishness, his personality, his self-esteem that received a devastating blow that fell away from him with a single blow.

"You are good for nothing." the Master had said. And Tozan realized. He suddenly realized with full clarity how trivial, unworthy, and insignificant he is.

"You simply wander..." the teacher had continued, and before he had finished, Tozan was enlightened. He realized that he was just a pointless point, just a small dot moving from one place to another. And not even that.

Everything he had previously thought of himself fell away like a useless burden. And he who bore that burden was himself, useless and unworthy. There was no such carrier. Like there was no such burden. These were all just meaningless imaginations, fiction, illusions.

We all deserve those stick blows — everyone in their own way.

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