A Kick in the Pants

kickDavid Riley writes on The Endless Further:

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of youself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.

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