I am shaped like a "treasure" sword— a valuable and finely crafted sword used by heroes and warriors in China since antiquity. Respect for and observation of precepts and regulations are basic to monastic life. I am used as the enforcer.
Originating in the Chan School of Buddhism, the meditation stick (xiangban) is a wooden paddle shaped like a sword that is used to deliver a warning stroke to practitioners. Its purpose is to maintain discipline and order within the Buddhist monastic community.
Meditation sticks have various names depending on their function. A “warning stick” is used as a warn-ing to remind practitioners to put forth effort in their cultivation. A “law stick” is used to punish those who break the monastic precepts. A “patrol stick” is used to awaken those who are sleeping or distracted dur-ing sitting meditation. A “supervisory stick” is used to monitor extended meditation retreats. In general, the meditation stick is wielded by such monastic of-ficers as the abbot, meditation session chief, medita-tion elder, meditation session advisor, hall director, or discipline master.
They call me the meditation stick. If you’ve ever come to a temple or lived in a monastery, you know that I’m used for hitting people. Just the mention of these two words in the same sentence—hitting and people—causes everybody to be wary of me and keep their distance. And it’s exactly because of the way people feel about me that I have been used for the past several hundred years to maintain discipline and ensure that the precepts and regulations are followed by Buddhist monastics.
Respect for the law is fundamental to the orderly functioning of a country. If people break the law, then there are penalties im-posed. Depending upon the seriousness of the crime, punishment can range from fines to imprisonment and even death. Similarly, respect for and observation of precepts and regulations are basic to monastic life. I am used as the enforcer.
I am shaped like a “treasure” sword—a valuable and finely crafted sword used by heroes and warriors in China since antiq-uity. The story of how I came to be shaped as I am and used in Bud-dhist monasteries is a fascinating one! During the reign of Emperor Kangxi,18 there lived an eminent monk, National Master19 Yulin. At the time when Yongzheng followed Kangxi as the next emperor, Mas-ter Yulin had already entered nirvana. Emperor Yongzheng greatly admired Master Yulin, so he issued a proclamation proclaiming his appreciation for the master’s contributions, to both China and Bud-dhism. The emperor decided to locate any of Master Yulin’s disciples.
One monk, with a head grotesquely covered in scabies pus-tules, came forward, claiming to have been a disciple of Master Yulin at Gaomin Temple. He said that his abbot had sent him to the capital to gain an audience with the emperor. Emperor Yongzheng, a serious practitioner of Chan Buddhism, spoke with the monk and immediately realized that he had only a shallow understanding of Chan. Outraged by such dishonor to the name and memory of Master Yulin, the emperor ordered a special meditation room set up in the palace. There the monk was ensconced and told that he had just seven days to attain enlightenment. If at the end of the seven days, he had not attained enlightenment, a treasure sword, which was hanging on the wall in the front of the room, would be used to behead him.
At the end of seven days, the scabies infested monk had not attained enlightenment, but the monk asked the attendant guard-ing the meditation chamber to make a request to the emperor for another seven days. The emperor granted a stay of one week. How-ever, on the sixth day of the stay, the monk was still unenlightened. The attendant said to him, “You mangy monk! You imposter! You false disciple of National Master Yulin! Tomorrow’s the last day. If you haven’t attained enlightenment, the emperor will use that treasure sword to take off your head!”
Upon hearing the attendant’s words, the monk suddenly at-tained enlightenment. He shouted, “Bring me the treasure sword. I’ll take off the emperor’s head!” The attendant thought the poor fellow had gone crazy and rushed to report this turn of events to the emperor. When the emperor heard the report, he knew imme-diately what had happened.
The admonitions of the attendant and threat of the emperor using the sword had helped to bring about the causes and condi-tions necessary for the monk to attain enlightenment. The monk was honored in recognition of his attainment. After news of what had taken place spread, Chan temples and monasteries began us-ing wooden meditation sticks shaped like treasure swords to en-courage and admonish their own monastics.
Since that time, while my shape has not changed, my use has become widespread. Now, there are various meditation sticks used for different purposes. The “warning stick” can be used at any time; the “law stick” is used when a monk has violated rules; and the “patrol stick” is used to startle or awaken monastics when they fall asleep or lose concentration during meditation. Each meditation stick is inscribed with its special function.
Generally, the meditation stick is used when people have vio-lated the rules. But even when there has been no transgression, a master might hit a practitioner at any time in the meditation hall. There is an old saying regarding this practice that goes, “The first hit can eliminate bad karma, the second can bring wisdom, and the third can bring enlightenment.” People believe that there are benefits to being hit by the meditation stick. In fact, one time, a famous woman presented an old monk with a donation of several thousand yuan along with her request that she be hit by the medi-tation stick. When this happened, I felt that my integrity was being compromised, because it seemed as if the monk was accepting a bribe for using me.
There was a limitation on my use. I could only be used by a fully-ordained monastic. These days, in some places, you would be hard-pressed even to find me. Even if you could find me, you would find very few qualified monastics. It is sad to see how mem-bership in the sangha has declined.
Meditation sticks are used most frequently in reception, chant-ing, and meditation halls. The discipline master would order the monastic to kneel down to be struck by the meditation stick. I was very visible at sangha food offerings and at precepts retreats. Se-nior monks walked around carrying me, looking like soldiers car-rying swords. As you can imagine, there was not much talking or looking around at these affairs.
Unfortunately, the use of the meditation stick in monastic life was sometimes excessive, abusive, and arbitrary. Just as feudal lords were known to cruelly torture people sometimes, some of the monastics in positions of authority would use me to beat other monks and nuns excessively because of personal dislike or petty disagreements. Infatuated with their power, they would show off in front of novice monastics. How tragic were these poisonous ac-tions of the Saha world to the life of Buddhist monasteries.
In civil society, everyone from the highest official to the ordi-nary citizen should be held accountable for following the law. The same principle should apply to monastic life; however, in some monasteries, abbots and other monastics in positions of authority have not been held to the same standard of discipline as ordinary monks and nuns. Monastic reformers—wanting to eliminate these abuses—proclaimed that I was an instrument used by the powerful to oppress the powerless.
The saddest sight to see was a monastic who had been severely punished, being turned out of the monastery after being beaten by the meditation stick. My heart would ache to see a monk, weak from a beating, forced by a monastic official to pack up his few belongings and leave the monastery. I was not proud of myself at times like these. Where was the compassion in all this? I wanted to denounce these disgraceful monks before the statue of the Bud-dha.
In addition to me, willow twigs and rattan sticks have been used as tools of discipline in monasteries. Monastics were not allowed to cry out while being struck or to sob afterwards. They had to bow and prostrate to the person who beat them and promise to repent. As Western ideas of democracy gradually spread to China, their influence was felt in Buddhist monasteries. Consequently, disciplining with the meditation stick came to be regarded as a barbaric practice. However, I know that what was being rejected was not me; it was the abuses of the system that I’m sorry to have had to describe to you.
Just as the meditation stick was used in monasteries for disci-pline and punishment, so was the ruler used in schools. In mon-asteries, monastics were hit on the shoulder with the meditation stick, and in schools students were hit on the palms of their hands with the ruler. The government has since prohibited the use of rulers for corporal punishment in public schools. While no one has outlawed the use of the meditation stick in monasteries, I want to share my thoughts on the subject.
While the use of the meditations stick has a long tradition, rules regarding its use have to be applied fairly and equally to all, whether they are abbots or the least senior of monks. I should not be used for minor rule infractions, and I should be used to strike only the shoulders of monastics. I should only be used to discipline those who do not work to proclaim the Dharma for the sake of all sentient beings, and, instead, invest money for personal gain. Used for those who do not practice the precepts, and, instead, make money performing funeral services. And last but not least, used for those who do not follow the Dharma, and, instead, criti-cize others and manipulate their positions for their own purposes. These are the monastics most in need of correction.
Treating others should be gentle
like a spring breeze.
Conducting oneself in society should be pure
like a summer lotus.
Disciplining oneself should be rigorous
like the autumn air.
Benefiting others should be warm
like the winter sun.
Venerable Master Hsing Yun grants voices to the objects of daily monastic life to tell their stories in this collection of first-person narratives.
The Heart Sutra is a short sutra, commonly chanted individually or in groups, that contains the core teachings on prajnaparamita, or the “perfection of wisdom.” The sutra is short, at only 260 Chinese characters. Included is an English translation of the sutra’s meaning, followed by the Chinese characters and their pronunciation
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