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Zen Accessories


判子 hanko
拂子 hossu
法衣掛 houi-kake
衣矩 iku
죽비 / 竹扉 jukbi (chugpi)
数珠 juzu
教策 kyōsaku
如意 nyoi
錫杖 shakujō
心板 shinpan
竹箆 shippei
拄杖 shujō
托鉢笠 金錢 takuhatsu konsen
單 / 单 tan
禅板 zenpan
坐蒲 zafu

Sōtōshū: Zen Monastic Robes
The Sound Instruments in the Zen Monastery

坐蒲 zafu
Padded cushion
Ülőpárna zazenhez

The meaning of the Japanese kanji, 座蒲, za (座) means "seat", and fu (蒲) means reedmace or cattail (Typha spp.). A zafu is a seat stuffed with the fluffy, soft, downy fibres of the disintegrating reedmace seed heads. The Japanese zafu originates in China (蒲团 putuan), where these meditation seats were originally filled with reedmace down.

The zafu is a thick, round cushion meant to function as a wedge between your body and the floor that allows your spine to remain straight, while your knees touch the floor throughout the session. Before you sit down, put its edge on the tatami and turn it around, squeezing it lightly, fixing its shape. After the session, return it to its original shape and position in the same way. On one side it has a white tag, which serves as a name tag for zazen practitioners. When you finalize the position of your zafu, the tag should be in the middle, facing away from you.

Make Your Own Cushion


The following information was originally published by the Zen Center of Los Angeles and was found in one of there fine books entitled To Forget the Self: An Illustrated Guide to Zen Meditation by John Daishin Buksbazen.  Unfortunately, this book is now out of print. It is gratefully presented here as a help for those getting started on their own:

"Suggested fabric for covering: A sturdy material such as a cotton/polyester blend.

Suggested stuffing: kapok (or buckweat hulls)


a.) Length of cloth 59 inches long, 6 inches to 9 inches wide (depending on how high you would like your cushion to be).

b.) Two circles of cloth, each with a diameter of 11 inches to 13 inches (depending on how large around you would like your cushion to be.)

Pleat the length of cloth.  There should be fourteen 3/4 inch pleats, 3 inches apart.  To pleat:

a) Beginning 6-1 /2 inches from the left edge of the lenght, make three marks, 3/4 inch apart, thus marking out the first pleat:

Three inches after the first set of pleat markings, make the second set, as indicated above.  Continue doing this till you have 14 pleats.  When you finish, the last pleat marking should be 3 inches from the right edge.  (If you wish to have narrower pleats, of course, simply increase the number of pleats.)

b) Next, iron the pleats and pin them.  They should all be folded and ironed in toward the left-hand side.  For each set of pleat markings, fold the third in toward the first as shown, and then pin as shown at below:


STEP 2. 
Now, having completed the first step, take the right edge of the pleated strip cloth and pinit to the left end of the strip, 3-1/4 inches from the left edge.

Mark each circle of cloth at four equidistant points.  Turn pleated length of cloth inside out.  Pin each circle to the pleated strip, one circle to the top edge and one to the bottom edge, at each of the four points.

STEP 4. 
Next, ease (pin) all the pleats in to the circles, top and bottom. Sew the circles to the lenght of cloth. 

Turn inside out and stuff with kapok (through opening in the side that the zafu will have). It's best to use a lot of stuffing material. Kapok will slowly compress with use and buckwheat hulls eventually breakdown:

A kapokkal (パンヤ panya; a Ceiba pentandra fa magvainak repítőszőréből nyert vatta) tömött zafut használat előtt át kell gyúrni, az élén forgatott ülőpárnára két marokkal rá-ránehezedve, míg egyenletesen oszlanak el benne a pihefa (Pallas Lexikon) összetapadt szálai.

A hajdina-pelyva (蕎麦殻 sobagara) olcsóbb töltőanyag, nemigen kell gyúrni. Egyébként ezzel tömik meg a japán vánkost (makura), amely felveszi a fej formáját, de szellőzik, így nyáron kellemesen hűvös.

See: "Americans Need Something to Sit On"



單 / 单
A meditation platform in a zendo.
A kolostorban egy tatami gyékénnyi (kb. 90 x 180 cm) a szerzetes lakhelye, itt meditál, étkezik, alszik. „Alváshoz egy tatami, üléshez a fele."
Lit., slip [of paper]; the assigned sitting place of a monk in a Zen monastery where he practises zazen.
The name of the monk is written on a slip of paper that is hung above his place; thus this place is called tan.
The term tan is also applied by extension to the wooden platforms, just a metre or slightly less in height
and about two metres deep, which are covered with straw matting and run along the two long walls of the zendo
of a Zen monastery. During the day the monks sit zazen on these and during a sesshin they also sleep on them at night.
As a further extension of mean­ing, the term is used for the row or line of people doing zazen, or the dojo.

Usually there are three or four: 
the jikijitsu tan (the tan to the left as you enter the front of the zendo),
tanto tan (the tan to the right as you enter the front of the zendo),
naka tan (an auxilliary tan between the jikijitsu tan and the tanto tan),
and sometimes a gaitan (an auxilliary tan outside the main zendo room).
The word tan can also indicate a person’s place on the tan, and hence his place in the monastery hierarchy.

Tan means unity. The individual space of a monk in the zendo is called tan. Usually, the size of one tatami
mat is one tan. 'Tanpyo' is a wood plate, that is hung up above the tan, inscribed with the monk's name.

"When awake and upright,
a half a mat;
When asleep and reclining,
just twice that."

In Zen there is the above saying; literally, "a half
mat when awake; one mat when asleep." This 
refers to the fact that, no matter how spacious 
and elegant a mansion we may live in, the most 
room any one human needs is equivalent to that of
one tatami mat (approx. 90 x 180 cm). This 
expresses the essence of the Zen aesthetic. To 
have just enough food, clothing, and other basic 
necessities, pared clean of nonessentials. To do 
away with indulgences. It is this lean, spare spirit
that we see in the Zen temple garden, in Japanese
flower arranging and the Way of Tea, and in many 
of the other traditional Japanese arts.


Chin rest
Álltámasz ülve alváshoz

size/mérete: 48 x 6,6 x 1 cm (circle/lyuk átmérő: 3,5 cm; talpától a lyukig: 38 cm)
Inscription by 野圦 (白山) 孝純 Noiri (Hakusan) Kōjun (1914-2007)
The meaning of the three characters
(不 fu 覆 fuku 蔵 zō): "Do not hide your mind under a cover." Ne född el a szíved!

A board used to provide support during
zazen (seated meditation) so that the
meditator can rest or even nap while
seated in the lotus position. The board
is long and narrow, measuring approximately
21 inches long (52 cm), 2.4
inches wide (6 cm), and less than half
an inch thick (10 mm). The zenpan has
a small, round hole cut toward the top.
In some cases, a cord was passed
through the hole and attached to wall
behind, such that the person meditating
could rest on a diagonal against the
flat of the board. Today, it is rested flat
across the knees or used as a chin rest to
prop up the head.

The circle, ensō (円相) symbolizes the absolute enlightenment and the void.
A kör alakú lyuk az ürességet, a megvilágosulást jelképezi.

Chin rest
Inscription by 泥龍 Deiryū (1895-1954): "The mosquito bites the iron bull"
Ink on wood, 54 cm × 6 cm
Hōsei-an Collection
The five characters of this phrase literally represent “mosquito” (蚊子), “bites” (咬), “iron” (鉄), and “bull” (牛).
Egy vasbikát csíp a szúnyog!


雪月花 setsugekka
"snow, moon, and flowers" (beauty of the four seasons)
„a hó, a hold, a virágok (= az évszakok gyönyörűsége)
50 × 8 × 0.6 cm

Inscription and stamps by 山本玄峰 Yamamoto Genpō (1866-1961)





判子 hanko  (認印 mitome-in)
Personal seal 
Személyi pecsétnyomó

黒水牛 kurosuigyū (fekete vízibivalyszarv), 18 x 60 mm

印鑑 inkan

朱文 shu bun (= „piros írásjegy”, az írásjegyet fehér háttérben pirosan nyomtatja)
(lit. "red characters") seals imprint the Chinese characters in red ink, sometimes referred to as yang seals.

白文 haku bun (= „fehér írásjegy”, az írásjegyet piros háttérben fehéren nyomtatja)
(lit. "white characters") seals imprint the background in red, leaving white characters, sometimes referred to as yin seals.

A hanko vagy személyi pecsétnyomó rendelkezik mindazzal a jogi felhatalmazással, amellyel más országban az aláírás, mi több az aláírás nem is elfogadott a japán törvények szerint. Minden vállalat vagy szervezet és minden állampolgár rendelkezik hankoval. Az állampolgároknak általában két-három hankojuk van, amelyből egy hivatalosan regisztrált és hitelesített a helyi önkormányzatnál. A hanko anyaga lehet kő vagy fa, bambusz, de lehet más értékes anyag is.




托鉢笠 金錢 takuhatsu konsen
takuhatsu coins
Terebess Gábor emlékpénzei (Az első szerzetesruháért koldult pénzből, néhány érmét szokás eltenni, ezt a kis tartót Myozen Terayama varrta hozzá.)

托鉢笠 takuhatsu [ (ぶんね) bunne]
konsen (coin)



東司 tōsu

東浄 tōchin
toilet in a zen monastery

法衣掛 houi-kake
Robe hanger

Hanging robes at the entrance to the rest room.
Az árnyékszék használata előtt a szerzetesruhát egy állványra terítik.


Dimension cm: 85×90×27.5

finger snap / ujjcsettintés

After monks began to reside in temple quarters, they constructed a building that they referred to as ‘the Eastern Quarters'. Sometimes it was called a water closet and at other times a lavatory. It is absolutely essential to have a lavatory in a place where a family of monks resides.

When going to the Eastern Quarters, you should be sure to take a hand towel with you. The way to do this is to fold the hand towel in half and put it over your left shoulder, letting it hang down over the sleeve of your gown. When you have arrived at the Eastern Quarters, you should hang your towel over the clean-clothes pole. Hang it in the same way it was when it was hanging on your shoulder.

If you come wearing a nine- or seven-striped kesa, you should be sure to hang it next to your towel. You should hang it so that it will not fall off. Do not hastily toss it over the pole. You should be sure to pay particular attention to the name marker. The name marker is for putting your name on the pole. Write your name on a piece of white paper in the shape of a full moon and then align this marker on the rack. We use a name marker so that we will not forget where we have put our robe. When our monks come in numbers, we must be sure not to confuse our place on the rack with that of others.

If a number of monks come and line up at this time, make shashu and bow in greeting to the others. When bowing in greeting, you need not bow deeply: simply hold your hands in shashu before your chest and bow in recognition of the others. When in the Eastern Quarters, we acknowledge the monks assembled by bowing to them even when we are not in our robes. If your two hands are not occupied or you are not carrying something in them, you should keep them in shashu and bow.

If one of your hands is already occupied, or when you are carrying something in one hand, you should make your bow with a one-handed gasshō. In bowing with a one-handed gasshō, the hand is raised, with the fingers slightly cupped as if you were going to use the hand to scoop up water; the head is lowered slightly, as in greeting. When another monk behaves in this way towards us, we should behave similarly: when we behave in this way, the other monk should do likewise.

The procedure for taking off your undershirt and outer robe is to remove your robe along with the undershirt by bringing the two sleeves together in back, putting the two arm holes together, and lifting up the sleeves. You then fold the two sleeves, one atop the other, over the garment. Next, with the left hand, grasp the back of the collars and, with the right hand, draw up the robe and fold it down the middle of the sleeve bags and the two collars. Having folded over the two sleeves and collars, you again fold the robe in two, lengthwise, and drape it over the pole with the collars on the far side; the skirt of the robe and the sleeve cuffs hang on the near side of the pole. That is to say, the robe hangs at the waist over the pole.

Next, avoid mistaking whose towel is whose when there are two poles and two towels are hanging one in front of the other. So that your towel does not get separated from your robe or get taken by someone who has not hung up a towel, tie it down by wrapping it around your robe two or three times and tying it, without letting your robe fall onto the ground. Then, facing your robe, you make gasshō.

Next, you take a sash cord and hang it over your shoulders. Then go to the wash stand and fill a clean bucket with water; carrying the bucket with your right hand, go into a toilet stall. In putting water in the bucket, do not fill it to the brim, but fill it up nine-tenths of the way.

When you reach the lavatory door, you should change your slippers. Put on a pair of rush slippers, leaving your own slippers by the front of the lavatory door. This is what is meant by ‘changing slippers'.

It says in the Procedures for Cleanliness in a Zen Temple, “When you need to go to the Eastern Quarters, by all means anticipate this need. Deal with it in time, so that you do not hurry from urgency. Give yourself time to fold your kesa, and leave it on your table in the Monks' Quarters or on the clean pole in the lavatory.”

Upon entering the toilet stall, close the door with your left hand. You next pour just a little water from your bucket into the toilet basin. Next, put the bucket in front of you in the place provided for it. Then, while standing, face the basin and snap your fingers three times. Whilst snapping your fingers, your left hand is held in a fist at your left side at waist level. Next, you lift and gather up your under-skirt by its corners, face the door and, straddling the basin between your feet, squat down and relieve yourself. Do not soil either side of your garments; do not let them get stained front or back. During this time, you should remain silent. Do not talk or joke with the person in the next stall, chant, sing, or recite anything aloud. Do not spit or blow mucus from your nose onto the area around you. Do not strain or make grunting sounds excessively. You should not write on the walls. Do not dig at or draw on the ground with your toilet spatula; it should be used for cleaning yourself after you have evacuated your bowels. Also, if you use paper, you should not use old paper or paper with characters written on it.

You should keep in mind the difference between a clean spatula and a soiled one. The spatula is eight inches long, triangular in shape. In thickness, it is the width of one's thumb. Some are lacquered, others are not. Put your soiled spatula in the used spatula box. Clean ones will already be in the spatula stand. The spatula stand is kept near the sign in front of the toilet basin. After using a spatula or paper, the way you clean yourself is as follows: hold the bucket in your right hand and moisten your left hand well. Then, cupping some water in your left hand, you first clean off your genitals three times. Then, you wash your buttocks. This is the way you should clean yourself.

Do not tip the bucket roughly, spilling the water into your hand and quickly using it all up. After you have finished cleaning yourself, put the bucket down in its proper place; then, take the used spatula and wipe it clean and dry with paper. You should wipe your genitals and buttocks dry. Next, adjust your under-skirt and robe with your right hand, and, also with your right hand, pick up the bucket. Then go out the door, take off the rush slippers, and put on your own. Next, you return to the wash stand and put the bucket in its original place.

Next, you should wash your hands. With your right hand you take a spoonful of ashes, place it atop some pebbles, drip some water on them, and wash your contacting hand with your right hand, using the pebbles to scour it, just as though you were cleaning rust off a sword. You should wash with ashes in this manner three times. Then, you should take some sand, add some water, and wash three times. Next, take some cleansing powder made from ground orange seeds in your right hand, moisten it with water from the small bucket, and wash by rubbing your hands together. The washing should be done thoroughly, even up your forearms. You should wholeheartedly devote your attention to washing in a conscientious manner. Ashes thrice, sand thrice, and cleansing powder once—all together seven times, an appropriate number. Next, you wash in a large bucket. This time, you simply wash in cold or warm water, without using any cleanser, sand, or ashes. After washing once, transfer that water into the small bucket, put in fresh water, and rinse both hands. In the Avatamsaka Scripture, a verse says:

When washing your hands,
By all means pray that all sentient beings
May acquire the finest hands
With which to receive the Buddha's Teachings.

When you use a water ladle, you should, of course, hold it with your right hand. When using it, do so quietly, without making a great noise with bucket or ladle. Do not splash water about, scatter the cleansing powder, or get the area around the water stand wet. That is to say, do not be hasty or careless: do not be disorderly with things or treat them roughly.

Next, you dry your hands with the towel for general use or dry them with your own towel. Once you have finished drying your hands, go to where your robe is hanging over the pole, undo the sash cord, and hang the cord over the pole. Next, hang your towel over your left shoulder and rub some incense on yourself. There is rubbing incense for general use. It is made of fragrant wood in the shape of small vials. The size of each is about the thickness of a thumb and four times that amount in length. You take a piece of string about a foot long and thread it through the holes that are bored in each end of the incense stick. This is hung over the pole. When you rub it between the palms of your hands, the fragrance of this incense will naturally impregnate your hands.

When you hang your sash cord over the pole, do not hang it over another one so that they become entangled, and do not leave it in a disorderly fashion.

When matters are handled in this way, everything will be a purified Buddha Land, a Buddha World well adorned. You should do everything with care, without a lapse: you should not act from haste, as though in a dither. Do not entertain the thought, “If I hurry, I can get back to what I was doing.” You should keep in mind the principle that, when you go to the Eastern Quarters, the Buddha's Dharma is not something to be talked about, but lived.

Do not stare at the faces of monks coming and going.

In cleansing yourself whilst in the lavatory, it is fine to use cool water, since it is said that hot water may cause diarrhea. Using warm water to wash your hands will not prove disturbing to your health. A kettle has been provided for heating water to wash your hands with.

Concerning the duties of the monk in charge of the lavatory, it says in the Procedures for Cleanliness in a Zen Temple, “Later in the evening, see that water is heated and oil is put out for the night lamp. Always make sure that there is someone to take over the boiling of the water, and do not let the community do it with a discriminatory attitude.” From this it is clear that both hot and cold water are used.

If the interior of the lavatory becomes dirty, you should screen off the entry door and hang the sign that says ‘Dirty' on it. If a bucket is accidentally knocked over, you should screen off the entry door and hang up the ‘Spilled Bucket' sign. Do not enter the building when such signs have been put up.

Even though you may have already entered a stall, if there is someone else who snaps his fingers to let you know of his presence, you should leave shortly.

(Chigen Jundo James Cohen)


And what do you do if you want to go to the toilet during kinhin? First you take off the o-kesa, hang it on a bamboo called jōkan* in front of the toilet area, next comes the robe:
*Jōkan 淨竿, lit., “pure pole,” is a bamboo or wooden pole set up horizontally.

Zen Staffs

(A) Shakujō (sounding staff), (B) Hossu (fly-whisk), (C) Nyoi (scepter), (D) Bō (warning stick), and (E) Shujō (walking stick).
Note that handles are considered soiled, whereas tips are considered pure.
Images courtesy of Kazuaki Tanahashi.

PDF: Zen Staffs as Implements of Instruction by Steven Heine (2017)

教策 kyōsaku
"Encouragement stick", waking stick, flattened at one end

新装版 雲水日記

警策 called keisaku in Rinzai; literally, "admonishing" or "startling" (kyō 警) "whip" (saku 策). A stick used by hall monitor (jikidō 直堂) or meditation patrol (junkō 巡香) to strike the shoulders of meditators and wake them when they are dozing, or to encourage them in their sitting.

警策 kyōsaku is short for 警覚策励 keikaku sakurei, meaning ‘attention booster’. The kyōsaku is a 2-3 ft staff used to hit zazen practitioners when they need help staying focused. If a practitioner feels himself getting sleepy, or notices that his attention is waning during zazen, he can unite his hands in gasshō and ask to be hit with the kyōsaku. If the person supervising the zazenkai sees that a practitioner has bad posture or has fal en asleep, he can take the initiative and hit him with the kyōsaku. In both cases, the right shoulder is touched lightly to warn the Zen practitioner of the pending strike. The practitioner then tilts his head to the left to open access to his shoulder. After being hit, he leaves his hands in gasshō and bows before returning them to hokkaijōin.

新装版 雲水日記 新装版 雲水日記
Watercolor sketches by 佐藤義英 Satō Giei (1921-1967) at 東福 寺 Tōfuku-ji, Kyoto, 1939

"awakening stick" or "lightening stick." 

"Don't be disturbed
by anything. Go straight ahead,
not dropping your
eyes or looking aside."

Painted by
Manzan Dohaku (1636-1715)
Zen. Soto.

Material: Japanese beech.
Painted using persimmon tannin.
(For decorative use only.)

Dimension cm: 105×5

(Chinese: 香板, xiangban)


Zen's Big Stick: The Kyosaku
The Encouragement Stick
Tricycle/Winter 1998 Volume 8, Number 2

PDF: Manjusri's Life-Giving Sword (RZC)


죽비 / 竹扉 jukbi (chugpi)
Korean Zen wooden clapper
koreai csattanó bot

Korean Zen Chugpi
Jukbi is a partially split wooden stick (from a single piece of wood to resemble bamboo) or bamboo stick used to indicate the beginning and the end of sitting and walking meditation. The sound when tapped, makes a loud clapping sound. It is also used during the formal meal to separate the various phases, as well as to synchronize bows during a ceremony.

Korean Zen Chugpi
This is a musical instrument & meditation stick. They are primarily used by Buddhist monks in Korea for meditation & for tapping the monks on the shoulder to keep them awake.


錫杖 shakujō
monk's staff
khakkhara: "sounding staff", xizhang: "tin stick",  a Buddhist ringed staff in prayer or as a weapon, that originates from India
zarándok bot; a kolduló
szerzetesek meg-megcsörgetik karikás koldusbotjukat

A shakujō (pilgrim's staff) is used by monks, as the sound it makes by shaking is useful for fending off poisonous serpents or harmful insects when they travel around the hills and fields and for visiting places in villages and cities to "beg" for alms.

Also called ushojō 有声杖, chijō 智杖, and tokujō 徳杖. A pilgrim's staff or sistrum. In Japan the shakujō usually consists of a wooden handle or pole topped with a metal finial with two sections, each with three rings, for a total of six rings, which represent the Six States of Existence -- the cycle of samsara, of suffering and reincarnation; in Japan, Jizō Bōsatsu is often shown holding this staff). In India, the shakujō's metal rings were originally used by traveling priests to alert small creatures to keep them from accidentally being harmed by a priest when walking in the woods. It was also used to frighten away dangerous snakes or beasts that the priest might have encountered. The shakujō could also serve as a cane to help the priest walk. When begging, he rattled this staff to announce his arrival at the door or gate of a household without breaking the vow of silence. In Japan the shakujō is still used by monks, pilgrims, and practitioners of Shugendō 修験道, a school of Buddhism that teaches ascetic practices in the mountains (see En no gyōja 役行者). A yamabushi 山伏 or mountain priest may use it for magic or exorcism. In the Shingon 真言 and Tendai 天台 sects, the shakujō is used as a ritual object in special ceremonies. Some have short handles and are held when chanting.



拄杖 shujō
拄杖子 shujōsu
the staff (Chinese: 拄杖子 zhuzhangzi; Korean: 주장자 jujangja) is a walking stick, often carried by the master when he “ascends the hall” (Japanese: 上堂法語 jōdō hōgo; Chinese:
shangtang fayu; Korean: 상당법어 sangdang beobeo) i.e., gives a formal lecture. Shujō is a staff used by Buddhist monks on their travels, and also used in Buddhist ceremonies.

- A shujô is a kind of staff, somewhat longer than a shippei and used when walking out-of-doors. Besides serving as a kind of cane, it was useful to gauge the depth of rivers which had to be crossed, and it scattered insects which otherwise would have been stepped on and killed. It represents Buddha's leg.

주장자 jujangja



竹箆 shippei
bamboo staff; Ch. zhubi
, mesterbot

- A rod used by a priest to discipline students practising Zen meditation. Made of split bamboo covered with black lacquer, the rod is usually about 90cm long and curved in a bow shape. One end is bound with cane, and the other end often has a cord with a tassel hanging from it. The shippei is sometimes found as an attribute, jimotsu 持物, on statues of Zen priests.

- A shippei is a staff made of bamboo about half a meter in length and shaped like a small bow. A Zen master keeps it at his or her side in the zendo when guiding the disciples. It symbolically represents Buddha's arm.

- A shippei is a bamboo staff which curves slightly, approximately half a metre long, which is used as a "symbol of a Zen master's authority" in Zen Buddhism. In contrast to the keisaku, the shippei was often used as a disciplinary measure for meditating monks. It can often be found at the side of a Zen master in a zendo and is also "one of seven items that make up a Zen monk's equipment." According to Helen Josephine Baroni, "The shippei is made from a split piece of bamboo, which is bound with wisteria vine and then lacquered." Sometimes curved in the shape of an S, the shippei may be elaborately decorated with a silk cord or have carvings. It is still "sometimes employed to hit monks."

- Literally, "bamboo" (chiku, shitsu 竹) "spatula" (hei 篦). A stick, between a 50 cm and 1 m in length, with a slight bow in it (the shape of a spatula), originally made by wrapping strands of bamboo around a core and covering them with lacquer. It seems likely from the size and weight of this implement that it originally functioned as a whip, for an animal or person struck with it would be startled or stung but never seriously injured. By the Song dynasty in China the bamboo staff had become a part of the formal regalia of a Buddhist abbot, who wielded it as a symbol of authority when taking the high seat in a dharma hall and instructing or engaging in debate with an assembly of monks and lay followers. Abbots belonging to the Zen lineage, as depicted in their biographies and discourse records, occasionally used their bamboo staffs to strike disciples. Such use of the bamboo staff was understood to be instructive, not punitive: to disabuse the recipient of their stubbornly held views or startle them into awakening. In present day Soto Zen, the bamboo staff is wielded by the head seat (shuso 首座) in the dharma combat ceremony (hossen shiki 法戰式), as a sign that he/she has assumed the position of authority in a debate that is usually held by the abbot.



如意 nyoi
Zen teaching scepter

The nyoi is a scepter of power used ritually by the Zen masters in Japan. Originally from China, where it is called ruyi (literally “as you wish”), this object has its origins in Taoist worship as auspicious symbol of good luck and longevity. The shape of the nyoi reminds of that of the reishi mushroom (lingzhi in Chinese), known as an elixir of longevity. Above and beyond its ritual use, the nyoi is an emblematic okimono, particularly popular among Japanese scholars in their acceptance of karamono, which is to say objects from China, even though many nyoi are of Japanese origin.
In contemporary Rinzai Zen, the master receives disciples for dokusan consultation holding a stick called a nyoi (Sanskrit chintamani, “wish-fulfilling gem”). Chiefly an emblem of spiritual authority, the nyoi may be used on occasion to strike. Such blows are interpreted in the context of Zen's heritage in legal rhetoric, and indeed may be seen as a kind of ritual citation of it. Any blows given in dokusan are also regarded as “skillful means,” aimed at helping the disciple cut attachment to deluded concepts.
In some schools of Zen like Sanbo Kyodan, the ceremonial scepter of a rōshi is called kotsu bone, relic (骨 kotsu) instead of nyoi. The scepter has a slight S-shaped curve, like a human spinal column. The rōshi uses the kotsu, for example, to emphasize a point in a teishō, to lean on when sitting, or also occasionally to strike a student.



拂子 hossu
(S. vālavy ajana; P. vālavījanī; T. rnga yab; C. fuzi; K. 불자 bulja),
Hossu was originally a fly whisk, but its function has become ceremonial; "fly swatter" or "fly shooer".
légyhessegető, légyhessentő, légycsapó, szőrkorbács, szőrbojtos bot
Nyélbe kötött, hosszú, fehér jak- vagy lószőr, a szúnyogok és legyek elhessegetésére; agyoncsapásukat ugyanis tiltja a buddhista fogadalom.

Also 白払 byakuhotsu. A kind of brush, used to drive away insects during meditation. The  hossu originated in ancient India, and is said to have already existed during the lifetime of Buddha. Hemp fibres, wood bark, or sheep's wool were attached to a handle to make the brush. In Japan badger's hair or deer's tail *shubi 麈尾 were used, and the hossu was carried by Buddhist priests as a symbol of spiritual leadership. In Zen Buddhism the hossu symbolized the subjugation of carnal desires, and also represented the principle of not hurting living things.

*shubi 麈尾
Lit. 'deer's tail'. A type of brush, originally made from deer's tail attached to a handle. The shubi 's practical purpose was to brush away insects during meditation, hossu 払子. The character '麈' refers to a species of reindeer which forms herds that always follow the lead stag. The  shubi was therefore carried by Buddhist priests as a symbol of leadership.

A hossu (払子) is a short staff of wood or bamboo with bundled hair (of a cow, horse, or yak) or hemp wielded by a Zen Buddhist priest. Often described as a "fly swatter" or "fly shooer", the stick is believed to protect the wielder from desire and also works as a way of ridding areas of flies without killing them. The hossu is regarded as symbolic of a Zen master's authority to teach and transmit Buddha Dharma to others, and is frequently passed from one master to the next.


In Chinese, “fly whisk” or “chowrie,” a yak-tail fan that Buddhist monks used to
keep flies and mosquitoes away, which comes to be a symbol of the office of
CHAN master. The chowrie is presumed to have originally been used among
followers of the JAINA tradition to shoo away flies without injuring them and
came to be used widely throughout India. In the Chinese Chan tradition, the fly
whisk (which in East Asia is usually made from a horse tail) became a sy mbol of
the office or privilege of a Chan master and is one of the accoutrements he
traditionally is depicted as holding in formal portraits. “Taking up the fly whisk”
(BINGFU) is, by metonymy, a term used to refer to a formal Chan sermon
delivered by a master.

"The dust-whisk consisted of a handle with a bundle of long horse-hair
tied to one end and a ring at the other for hanging it on the wall.
The act of raising the dust-whisk is the performance of great function
to show that which raises it." (Lu K'uan Yü)




衣矩 iku
Ruler for folding koromo (衣たたみ用定規)
Ruhaélhajtó fa

A ruler for folding Koromo. Putting this into along the holding lines and to smoothe the creases out of a Koromo.
Vonalzó a szerzetesruha rakott szoknya részének összehajtogatásához, a ráncok, redők, hajtások kisimítását könnyíti meg.

Material: 秋田杉 (Akita sugi, Cryptomeria japonica)
Painted with Japanese

Dimension cm: 67.5×6×0.6

Terebess Gábor személyes (bükkfából készült) hajtófája, szerzetes neve beégetve



心板 shinpan >>> xinban
split bamboo, cooling the palms of the hands
kéztartó bambuszléc, tenyérhűsítő




数珠 juzu

Prayer beads
Japán buddhista olvasó, imafüzér

108 gyöngyszeme emlékeztet a 108 gonosz vágyra, s így segít legyőzni őket. Főleg szertartások alkalmával használják (pl. esküvő, temetés). A könnyebb kezelhetőség miatt készítenek rövidebb füzéreket is, melyek 54, 42, 36, 27, 21, 18 vagy 14 szemből állnak.
Lent: lótuszmagból készült, női és férfi szótó fémgyűrűs imafűzér közös ajándékdobozban (az ürességet jelképező gyűrű segíti a számlálást):

Juzu for Soto Sect (both for man and woman) have a distinctive feature of using a metal ring called 百八環金 hyakuhachi-kankin (literally, one hundred and eight golden ring). It represents Emptiness (not to be confused with a "zero" however!), crossing through the 108 virtues and defilements ... and on a more practical level, it is a counter so one does not lose one's place as one is chanting down the beads (not a major Soto practice, but some do so). The Rinzai sect doesn't use metal ring.

As for juzu of the Soto Sect, the number and allocation of Omodama, Oyadama and Shitendama are the same as those of the Shingon Sect.

親珠 Oyadama = Master Bead / Buddha Parent Bead
主珠 Omodama = component beads
天珠 Shitendama = Bodhisattva beads

PDF: Telling Beads: The forms and Functions of the Buddhist Rosary in Japan by George J. Tanabe, Jr.
Beiträge des Arbeitskreises Japanische Religionen, 2012.

PDF: The Rosary by John Kieschnick
In: The Impact of Buddhim on Chinese Material Culture, Princetion/Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003. pp. 116-138.

PDF: Prayer Beads in Japanese Soto Sect by Michaela Mross (2017)



曹洞宗用の本式数珠は、輪の部分に主珠108珠・親珠2珠・四天珠4珠を用いる。 珠の配置は、親玉1珠→主珠18珠→四天珠1珠→主珠18珠→四天珠1珠→主珠18珠→親珠1珠→主珠18珠→四天珠1珠→主珠18珠→四天珠1珠→主珠18珠で一周して輪になる。



Woman can change colors according to their ages, but men usually use a single brownish color for a life-time use. Women's prayer beads have a different size from men's. Less than 8 millimeter beads are usually used for women's simplified prayer beads. On the other hand, over 10 millimeter beads are used for men's. Formal prayer beads are also difference between men's and women's, such as women's is smaller than men's.

"starmoon" bodhi seeds (Japanese: 星月菩提樹 seigetsu bodaiju);
bodaiju is the Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) tree under which Gautama reached Enlightenment

See more at:



PDF: Zen Sells Zen Things
Meditation Supply, Right Livelihood, and Buddhist Retail*
Gregory P. A. Levine

Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores Japanese Zen material culture and materialism in a
contemporary American monastic context. It examines the adaptation of
mainstream business operations by The Monastery Store at Zen Mountain
Monastery, established by John Daido Loori near Woodstock, New York, in 1980.
It provides a visual and critical analysis of The Monastery Store’s mail-order
catalogue, website, and brick-and-mortar facility on the monastery grounds, and
it contrasts “retail Zen” (i.e., the mass marketing of vaguely Zen-like articles by
multinational distribution chains for maximum profit) and “Zen retail” (i.e., the
selective sale of sustainably sourced Zen items by nonprofit Zen monasteries to
support adherents’ practice). In so doing, this analysis contributes to our
understanding of Buddhist economics, practice, ethics, and other Zen matters.

Keywords: Zen in America, Zen Mountain Monastery, e-commerce, Zen retail, right consumption



"Americans Need Something to Sit On,"
or Zen Meditation Materials and Buddhist Diversity in North America

Douglas M. Padgett
Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies
Indiana University

Whether over the Silk Road or along the Southeast Asian coastline, for over two millennia Buddhism has moved and changed with trade. And still, the Buddhist profile on the North American cultural horizon is mercantile. Today, in brick-and-mortar stores, down the Information Superhighway, through contemporary marketing techniques, e-retailing, direct mail, and the slick Buddhist glossies that have proven so popular over the years, Buddhism continues to be transformed by commerce. In every issue, the magazines Shambhala Sun and Tricycle: A Buddhist Review run ads for meditation—or, as they tend to say, Dharma—supplies, the religious necessities and life-style accoutrements for the contemporary Buddhist. Among pages touting the virtues of the "Zen alarm clock" (which awakens you gently to the sound of its "Tibetan bell-like chime"), Japanese incense, Buddhist mood music, and hundreds of books (not to mention Buddhist investment schemes, educational opportunities, and vacation plans), some of the most prominent advertisements are those for meditation cushions. One particular announcement proclaims the advantages of support pillows handmade by the Buddhists of the "Russian Lamaist Order," through their Northern California business, Fly By Nite Co. A photograph shows two cushions, one atop the other. Members of the Russian Lamaist Order apparently see themselves as belonging to the local, American branch of a Russo-Siberian tradition of central Asian Buddhism—something akin to Mongolian or Tibetan Buddhism. But, as if that were not complicated enough, the leader of the group has a Japanese title and the cushions depicted in the ad are of a style used in East Asia. Buddhist American consumer goods have eclectic backgrounds, if nothing else.

In this paper, I take seriously the notion that the consumption of such chimerically constructed commodities should be considered neither irrelevant nor an outrage—two common responses. Rather, they are important elements for understanding the development of any religious movement, including Buddhism in America (and maybe especially Buddhism in America).(1) Though I have attempted track a number of commodities over the past months, Buddhist meditation cushions such as those of the Fly By Nite Co. that seem to have become nearly essential in the lives of certain Buddhist Americans will be the focus of my discussion. This focus on consumption and a single commodity assumes, among other considerations, that specific things and our social and economic relationships with things actually matter in the study of religion. More importantly, for me, as for Daniel Miller in his essay, "Consumption as the Vanguard of History," it assumes that the study of consumption can constitute a critical inquiry into "the production of human values."(2) Miller notes that consumption is difficult to define in a generally useful way. But he argues that it should best be seen as "dialectic between the specificity of regions, groups[,] and particular commodity forms on the one hand, and the generality of global shifts in the political economy and contradictions of culture on the other."(3) I have tried to keep this in mind. The chair, writes Edward Tenner, was never "predestined to dominate modernized humanity." Neither are the current choices of meditation seating options inevitable. And just as chairs are "keys to a distinctively Western system of things and symbols," so too, we might surmise, the sorts of seat we choose for meditation might be one key to the system of practices and symbols that govern Buddhist meditation in North America.(4)

I have three aims. First, I intend to describe the market in meditation cushions—the products, who makes them, who buys them, and why. Second, I want to tentatively relate the characteristics of this market to the contemporary debate over the character of Buddhist America. Finally, I hope that my discussion will demonstrate, by example at least, how the study of consumption can be a significant avenue for interpreting cross-cultural religious transformations. My point of view may seem a bit iconoclastic, even reactionary. Today's Buddhist Americans do not often give consumption a positive, or even neutral, valence. In my conversations with Buddhists, scholars of Buddhism, and even employees of Buddhist publishing houses, I have been impressed by the rarefied, immaterial character of their view of Buddhism. From some points of view, true "spirituality" (and true Buddhism) is unrelated to the human traffic in things.(5) A case in point: A recent issue of the Shambhala Sun contains an article entitled "Zen Sells" on "the irony of enlisting spiritual themes in the service of materialism."(6) The article and its accompanying photographs are an attempt to expose the more glaring and hypocritical uses of the rhetoric of Zen and enlightenment in the service of marketing goods and services. My paper, in contrast, is an only slightly ironic look at how materialism—or, more accurately, consumption—conditions and is conditioned by spiritual communities. To paraphrase Leigh E. Schmidt in his work on American holidays, I am attempting to focus on the "interplay" of commerce, Buddhism, and consumption.(7) Thus, I intend to argue that consumption is an integral aspect of Buddhism in American and that Buddhist Americans' consumption practices are, in conjunction with other factors, having a profound influence on the various ways that Buddhism in America is developing, how it is being perceived, imagined, and, finally, contested.

The Products

By far the most widely used type of cushion in North America is known as the zafu. Zafus are round cushions that appear to have come into use in North America via certain schools of Japanese Zen but are of Chinese origin.(8) They are twelve to fifteen inches across and have eight to ten inches of loft. Though in Japan they are usually brown or black, here in the United States, the colors and the color combinations are almost unlimited, and the cushions are sold in a variety of sizes. A zafu is often used (and marketed) in combination with the zabuton, a square, thick mat designed to support the meditator's knees while perched above it on the zafu. The larger cushion suppliers offer a significant choice of materials, washable removable covers in decorator colors, or extra stuffing material. Zafus generally sell for prices ranging from $27 for one with kapok fill and a single color to more than $50 for multiple colors and buckwheat hull fill. Zabutons run from $32 to $68 depending upon similar factors as well as height of loft. There are variations on each cushion, including something called a smile or crescent zafu ($45 to $47) shaped like a crescent moon, and an inflatable zafu ($24.50 to $26.50, depending upon the size) for traveling. In each case, there is significant variation in price between manufacturers.(9)

General purpose "meditation cushions" are also sold for homes or Zen centers. They are a little cheaper. These cushions are usually twelve to sixteen inches square or perhaps slightly rectangular, and have from two to four inches of loft. They may be used in combination with the zafu and zabuton, to support the hands or give extra height, or as a replacement for either. They sell for between $28 and $38, depending upon the size and make. A slightly larger version of this basic seat known as the gomden is the American innovation of a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Vermont. According to the manufacturer's advertising, gomden is Tibetan for "meditation seat." It is sold at four price levels, reflecting the height of the foam used—up to six inches. The prices range from $42 to $51.

Low, wooden benches are marketed as an alternative to cushions for those meditators of "limited flexibility" or those who may require greater height in order to assume the appropriate posture. The benches range in size from seven to ten or more inches and vary greatly in design. Some are sold as a unit; others may be disassembled for travel. Some benches are designed to be used with a mat over the top; others are not. In one case, the bench is designed to slope from front to back, just as compressed cushion might. Depending upon the size ordered and the maker, the benches range in price from $45 to $102, and all are marketed as handmade.

The populations of Buddhist American meditators and Hindu American yoga practitioners in North America are not identical. However, at least with regard to consumption, the boundaries between the two are porous, with yoga practitioners making up an overlapping circle of affiliates. In the United States, yoga seems to have a close association with meditation, requiring similar materials and training. Thus, several companies also sell yoga mats and other cushions. The yoga mat is a cotton- or foam and cotton-stuffed shell, seventy to seventy-four inches long, twenty-five to thirty inches wide, and can be rolled up like a sleeping bag. Yoga mats sell uniformly for $88 or $89 and may be bought with a carrying case for an extra $20. Related cushions, such as a "yoga bolster," sell for $68. A third type of yoga cushion comes in a wedge-shaped design to ease pressure on the spine (like the bench above) and is stuffed with buckwheat hulls or foam. One Buddhist meditation supply company sells it as the inexpensive alternative. Yoga mats are not designed for mediation use, but for the more dynamic practices of yoga, though manufacturers market them, of course, to be used in a variety of unanticipated ways, including meditation. Such an unintended, local multiplicity of purposes is a hallmark of the commodification of cushions and other Buddhist-associated objects in North America, if not of global capitalism more generally.

The Producers

Over the last two years I have identified eight commercial makers of Buddhist meditation cushions currently in operation in the United States. Besides these eight, however, there are cushion makers who do not sell their product, sell only to their own members, or only perform finishing work on cushions purchased at discount from one of the eight others. Finally there are dozens of retailers of meditation materials and books who resell the work of any one of these eight. Significantly, these retailers come from all backgrounds—Tibetan, Zen, Theravaada, and those of no particular affiliation—but all sell the same products. Only one of the Tibetan retailers also sells Tibetan rugs for meditation.

Of the eight, five are for-profit, privately-owned concerns. The other three are the business ventures of non-profit Buddhist organizations that generate income and supply their members with necessary supplies. I have had interviews with representatives of six of the eight. They all sell primarily in Buddhist magazines and over the Internet. All have remained locally-oriented in their production to the greatest extent possible. It is difficult to determine the relative sizes of any of the eight cushion makers because they are reluctant to speak in detail of their total sales and income. Furthermore, in at least one case, the work is communal to a great degree. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the larger American economy, business appears to be good for all concerned. Several experienced large growth through the mid-1990s with new marketing campaigns and media exposure, aided by the rising profile of Buddhism on the American cultural scene. Their relative positions in the cushions market are not at all fixed, but the market is small and not likely to grow much. Still, as many of their representatives noted to me, the cushion makers are not out to build monopolies. Particularly with regard to sales to practicing Buddhists, some feel that they have reached a ceiling. Some are happy with that and content to let the present situation develop. Others are attempting to expand the business out to non-Buddhist meditators (such as practitioners of Christian meditation) and to those just beginning to experiment with meditation.

Representatives of the businesses that I spoke with agree on a number of points about the cushion business. All of them, with varying degrees of emphasis, see the business as a mission of sorts, a way to propagate the Dharma. They earnestly maintain that their cushions are a valuable, if not essential, part of meditation, stressing proper posture and questioning the ability or will of Americans to reach that posture without cushion support. They see what they do as a way to spread the word about Buddhism, about the general benefits of meditation apart from meditation, and, in some instances, about Buddhist ideas on suffering, enlightenment, reincarnation, and karma. Meditation instructions, Buddhist art, and Buddhist charities figure prominently in their advertising and in the non-business events and groups they support. Social ethical issues are also a consistent theme in their business practices. Cushion makers like to buy locally if they can. They do not like to buy from businesses in or associated with the People's Republic of China, especially if they are affiliated with a Tibetan lineage. Several of those who make their living off the cushion trade stressed to me that they see their involvement in Buddhist commerce as a "right livelihood," one of the steps of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Below, I will discuss two representatives each of non-profit and for-profit cushion makers.

Non-profit Ventures

Two of the three non-profit businesses are located in California. One of these, whose advertisement I described in the introduction, is the Fly By Nite Co., the business arm of the Russian Lamaist Order, a San Francisco organization founded in the late 1960s by a European-Russian immigrant from Siberia who went by the title of "Doctor-Bishop Ajari." (His name is, as yet, unknown to me.) This man, now deceased, was, according to his followers, not only knowledgeable of his own Tibetan-style Buddhist tradition, but of the Japanese as well. "Ajari" is the Japanese form of the Sanskrit acharya ("teacher"). I was told that his teachings eclectically combined elements of these various Buddhist traditions. He started several money-earning projects for his organization in 1973 of which the cushion business is the only one remaining. Apparently, the religious arm of his organization has gone into decline as well, given that one of his followers told me there were "very few" of them left now. They are small, and their product line is limited to zafus, zabutons, and the all-purpose meditation cushion (both kapok and buckwheat hull variety), with few color options. Still they are doing well enough to advertise in Tricycle.

Far larger and more successful, Samadhi Cushions is a business arm of the Tibetan Karma Choling center in Vermont. Samadhi began making meditation cushions in 1971 in a barn at the center in order to supply their young practitioners with seating. Though of a Tibetan background, their leader, Chogyam Trungpa, was similarly taken with Japanese meditation styles. Because, to the Western way of doing things, there is no comfortable model for meditation seating in the Tibetan traditions, the zafu/zabuton combination was appropriated. After all, as one of their managers told me, they figured that "Americans need something to sit on." (The representative with whom I spoke did not seem to be aware of the central Asian practice of sitting on rugs.) After twenty-five years of doing business out of the barn, in 1996 they moved their operation down the road to the village of Barnet, where they keep an office, store, and workshop. The organization currently employs ten people in sewing, stuffing, selling, and managing the product line, using home stitchers in the area for their cushions and local wood workers for all their benches. The president of the company is the director of the Dharma center, but the business manager is not a part of the organization and not a Buddhist. Despite its institutional affiliations, Samadhi Cushions is operated as a moneymaking venture by the center. The representative with whom I spoke at greatest length, though also a Buddhist, is an accountant and business consultant on contract. The company has grown significantly since 1971. Between 1975 and 1985, the center and the business expanded rapidly, along with meditation practice nationwide. Growth has leveled since. One manager estimates that they did $250,000 in sales in 1980 and twice that in 1996.

For-Profit Ventures

After a number of conversations with the proprietors of for-profit Buddhist business ventures, it was difficult for me not to feel a sense of admiration and sympathy for their work. The cushion trade is not always an easy one. The women running these operations have similar stories. Both began making cushions through their affiliations with Dharma centers. Because these centers did not seem to want to become involved in commercial ventures, they struck out their own, financially at least. Both have now achieved some measure of financial stability and even success. DharmaCrafts may be the largest maker and retailer of meditation cushions in the country. They sell many other items as well, such as imported statues and incense from Korea and Nepal. DharmaCrafts began in 1979 in the Cambridge Zen Center (a Korean center) and rented space from the center until recently. They sell by catalog and on the Internet. They are to be considered, as the proprietor told me without the barest hint of pride, by any standard, a "middle-sized company." For the founder, Diane, her company is a way to support Buddhists as well as make a living. She designs and makes everything that she can in her own shop, with seven employees, four office dogs, an office baby, and occasional part-time help from the center. She frequently travels to Korea to visit her teacher where also she buy goods for import. She does most of her Nepalese buying through an agent. Though she also believes that the meditation cushions market is "maxed out," she does see some growth potential in Christian meditators and yoga practitioners. Diane, expressing a sentiment common to other representatives who spoke with me, said that she has no desire to encroach on the market niches or product innovations of others, such as the inflatable zafu or the gomden, for instance. She noted that everyone needs to make a living. She also told me that, for her, that living includes being able to spread the word about Buddhist meditation and to do so in a way that is as non-disruptive as possible.

Carolina Morning Designs, located in the Blue Ridge, has been growing steadily, though its business is limited to cushions and benches. Their motto is "Meditation: Support for a Peaceful World." The company was founded in 1985 by Linsi, a Bostonian who had worked for DharmaCrafts for a few years. She had moved to the Southern Dharma Retreat Center, a "non-denominational" facility in the Blue Ridge, from the northern U.S. and wanted to start the business as a "little cottage industry to support the center."(10) The board turned her down, but suggested that she do it on her own. It has been a slow road. In the mid-1990s, she was still only grossing about 50,000 dollars a year.(11) Her husband Patrick, who used to run an award-winning literary magazine called Kokopelli Notes, says they are still just trying to reach a comfortable level, but at least they are able to make cushions full-time now. In a recent profile, Patrick is quoted as saying, "This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where spiritual practice meets mundane practical reality."(12) Amidst all their plans, he told me, sits the notion of right livelihood keeping them balanced between their business as a spiritual practice and their business as a business. In most ways, then, for Patrick, they are guided by their non-financial goal: making meditation mainstream. "It's hard not to be caught up in the competition," he said. Referring to the other players in the cushions market, he said, "I want to call what we have 'co-opertition.' But I don't think everybody else feels that way."

The Customers

Identifying the consumers of these meditation cushions is a complicated task, presenting a set of problems familiar to observers of Buddhism in North America. Demographic data on minority religions such as Buddhism are scarce and speculative at best. Furthermore, typologies of Buddhism in the West are not a settled issue among those who study American Buddhism, though they generally seem to have more in common than otherwise. I will not restate the various arguments here (though virtually all are useful in particular contexts). It is now, however, commonly held that there are fundamental and significant distinctions among Buddhist Americans based upon not only ethnicity, but levels of affiliation, class, and forms of practice, as well as national or cultural background. Some have argued that the major fault line lies between those who meditate and those who do not, and it is this distinction that, of course, seems particularly relevant to the consumption of meditation cushions. Jan Nattier refers to most meditating Buddhists as "Elite Buddhists." In her understanding of the American Buddhist scene, Elite Buddhist are those privileged, well-educated Americans with time enough and money enough to devote themselves to some level of meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts.(13)

For the purposes of this paper, however, Elite Buddhism is not wholly defined by actual meditation practice, but rather by a particular consumer orientation. I am interested in their consumption habits. In consumption anthropology, they might be known as "highbrow Buddhists." They may be meditators; they may not. In either case, they have certainly adopted consumption habits indicating a minimal level of understanding and commitment to a Buddhist practice. I am adopting Nattier's term because those whom I call Elite Buddhists are those who are making investments of one sort or another in meditation. Thomas A. Tweed has referred to some of the people I am trying to identify as "night-stand" Buddhists—Buddhist sympathizers and seekers for whom the most regular "practice" is passive—reading Buddhist books, listening to "Buddhist" music, watching Buddhist videos, thinking about Buddhist concepts.(14) Taken together, these night-stand Buddhists and Elite Buddhists, as well as Tweed's other categories of Buddhist affiliates, "horse-shed Buddhists" (occasional practitioners), "Buddhist interpreters" (journalists and scholars), and "Dharma hoppers" (permanent seekers who move from community to community) constitute a coherent population of people with knowledge about and interest in Buddhism. They appear to be affiliates of something like what Tweed has referred to, in the Victorian context, as a "community of discourse."(15) For my purposes, perhaps, most importantly, these are also the people who are buying things that, in some way are symbolically or culturally associated with Buddhism. Thus, this community of discourse might just as appropriately be referred to collectively as a "community of consumption."(16)

The producers of cushions themselves of course implicitly identify Elite Buddhists as a coherent community of consumption as well as a community of meditators. They use the same media to sell to the same people, advertising in Buddhist journals (Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, and a few others) with identical forays outside the Buddhist print community into the more commercial and larger circulation Yoga Journal. (According to the producers, when companies do go farther afield, to, for example, Vegetarian Times or New Age publications, the results are always unsatisfactory.) Though only one of the cushion manufacturers admits to having a sophisticated marketing system, they all have the advertising departments of these journals at their disposal. The magazines themselves present an interesting, if one-dimensional, entry into the demographic characteristics of Elite Buddhist Americans. According to the Tricycle media card, their target readership is the United States' 150,000 non-Asian American Buddhists (defined by their own surveys, apparently), 5,000,000 Asian American Buddhists, and any others who are interested. In point of fact of course, Tricycle, like its advertisers and readers, is predominantly concerned with those readers possessing contemporary, mass-market oriented consumption habits—and who are also practicing or interested in meditation-oriented Buddhism. Tricycle's advertising department claims for the magazine a subscription base of 30,000 and a newsstand draw of 25,000, with an estimated readership (factoring in multiple readers per copy) of 150,000. Over half of this number are considered to be non-Buddhist.(17) Shambhala Sun similarly claims a readership and rate base of 35,000. The average household income for Tricycle readers is $50,000 or more and $72, 000 for Shambhala Sun readers, with 50 percent having incomes between $60,000 and $90,000. Shambhala Sun furthermore notes that 35 percent of their readership are professionals in the "medical/alternative health care, legal, financial, or counseling fields." As evidence of the assertion that we are, in some significant way, talking about people who might actually meditate, Shambhala Sun finds that 90 percent have "visited a contemplative center or retreat center in the past year."(18)

The spokesperson for several companies expanded on the Tricycle data for me. For the private companies, 25 percent or more of sales is wholesale; quite a lot of both wholesale and retail sales goes to schools, Dharma centers, and Buddhist prison fellowships. Significantly, the Dharma centers to which these cushions are sold are of every variety—Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan centers all buy zafus and zabutons. But most sales are made to private individuals. The customers are educated, wealthy, thirty-five to fifty years old, and evenly divided between male and female. Between 25 and 35 percent of sales on average go to customers in California, with another 20 to 30 percent to New England and New York. Florida and the rest of the West Coast receive about ten percent each. The "Heartland," as one owner called the land between the coasts, receives most of the rest. The fact that many of their products are locally made or American made is actually a large selling point. In advertising and selling, their principle is to tell as much as possible about the product, so materials and make are part of that information.

Cushions and the Elite Buddhist Community

In the characteristics of the commodities described above, in their lack of traditional Asian variability and their new overabundance of color and style options, in their make, their use, and in the sentiments surrounding their manufacture, we see indications of the direction being charted by and for Elite Buddhists. The consumption habits of these Buddhist Americans seem to indicate a predilection for Zen or East Asian material forms. In an informal survey of some of the largest Zen/Chan/Son, Vipassana, and Tibetan-oriented meditation centers in the country, I found that all use zafus (and most use zabutons) in their meditation halls. None of the people with whom I spoke were aware of the cultural or economic history of their seat of choice. Spokespeople at these same centers also voiced a preference for Japanese incense and Taiwanese and Japanese bells. Here, then, it would seem, is some evidence of a Zen, or at least East Asian, hegemony in Elite Buddhist American practice; in stating this I do not, of course, mean that there are not many sorts of Elite Buddhist meditators, but rather that all of the meditative options seem to be stuffed with Zen kapok and covered and colored for the den from before they even sit down on them.(19)

Still, though it is not inaccurate, simply stating that Buddhism in America has become "Zenified" is insufficient. Other, interrelated predilections are at work. In particular, the picture of the "Zenified" Buddhist American suggests a tension between a powerful discourse favoring a unified Buddhist practice centered on meditation and a disposition towards individualism in religious activity. In coming to terms with Buddhism in the West, Elite Buddhists insist that they must retool Buddhism to fit the common lifestyles and values that are variously seen as the essence of the new American Buddhism. The model may be Zen, as with the emphasis on the use of cushions, but the paradoxical aim is the development of a national style of Buddhism acceptable in a wide range of Elite Buddhist personal lifestyles. In the ongoing conversation among Elite Buddhists about how to make one's own place under the one big meditative parasol is articulated a desire for orthopraxy amidst a plethora of domestic options.

In an essay from the current handbook of Elite Buddhism, the misnamed Complete Guide to Buddhist America, edited by Don Morreale, Jack Kornfield, one of the senior figures in the Vipassana movement, writes of the transformation of Buddhist practices from their Asian antecedents.(20) He writes that while living in Thailand and Burma he discovered that, in the great part of Buddhist Asia, Buddhism is a "great religion just like any other." That is, like worshipers of Western religions, "the majority of Buddhists do not really practice" (i.e., practice meditation) (p. xxiv). For Kornfield, one of the first lessons that he had to learn in order to practice Buddhism successfully in an Asian monastery was to "take what is good." He implicitly offers this as a description of and prescription for Buddhist America. And, in "taking what is good," Elite Buddhist Americans pick and choose from the Buddhist traditions laid out on the American buffet. "Taking what is good" in part follows from what Kornfield refers to as the "integration" of meditation practice into the lifestyles of lay individuals and its attendant shift from a public to private sphere (pp. xxiii-xxiv).(21) Unlike much of Buddhism in Asia, Buddhism here is not monastically oriented. Meditation must be undertaken amidst the competing constraints of family, work, and secular culture. Thus, Elite Buddhist meditation is most often a home practice. Though Elite Buddhists often undertake the study of meditation under the guidance of others, meditation technique is also learned in books and videos and conducted in private or in small, intimate groups.(22) In all of this, Kornfield sees an exceptionalism to Buddhism in the West in which a "North American vehicle is being created" (p. xxx). It is here, "by taking what is good," that the ancient divisions of Japanese and Tibetan and Burmese will be forgotten, where their "wisdom" will join with that of America to heal old wounds and make a new, stronger whole. He writes that Buddhists "must beware of sectarianism," while still respecting the differences in Buddhist paths (pp. xxvi-xxvii). The key is to adapt Buddhism to North America without "losing its essence" (p. xxviii).

Ultimately, as Kornfield's stark, somewhat Orientalist admission admits, the authority of that essence is seated in and determined by an ideal of the individual. Kornfield is concerned here with the manner in which Buddhist values permeate other aspects of life, but also that those values be derived from a kind of pure Buddhism of practice that emerges from the individual (p. xxx). Thus, for us, the culture of consumption surrounding cushions and other meditation materials points not merely to some diffuse Zen hegemony, with its distinctive ideas and meditation patterns, but to the Elite Buddhist American emphasis on individualism. The discourse of individualism articulated by Kornfield and many others and the consumption habits of Elite Buddhists reinforce one another. According to managers and evident from the companies' literature, aesthetics and quality of construction are of primary importance to their customers—more so than any sense of authenticity attached to Asian make. The makers count on their customers buying the cushions for use at home and for something other than meditation. One Samadhi Cushions ad, promoting the variety of zafu color options, notes, "If you close your eyes while meditating, you'll miss the colors." The cushions are lifestyle choices as well as religious articles. They are the options of those who have options. Though the customers seem to vary primarily by names of the styles of meditation that they perform, the cushions are sold with options of color, size, style, design, fill, and cover material. They are sold as couch pillows and general-purpose seating. They are sold to complement a room, not just a practice. This is not, of course, to say that these cushions are exclusively decorative at all, but only that they are also decorative.


That Buddhist development in North America should involve the crossing of traditional borders and a renegotiation of authority in ritual and doctrinal decisions should certainly not be surprising. Elite Buddhist conflicts and decisions reflect the character and habits of the class of Americans involved in these activities.(23) Still, many of the critiques of the authenticity of Buddhism in America rest on just these sorts of border crossings and renegotiations. But, in truth, as Edward M. Brunner notes, authenticity is a guise for just the sort of issues of authority discussed above. What is authentic is predicated upon who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong.(24) For Elite Buddhists in America, just as the site of authority on so many non-religious issues is the individual, so too are individual preferences, individual privacy, individual needs heavily privileged in religious or "spiritual" considerations. Though conversations about authenticity and legitimacy are not absent from Elite Buddhist discourse, they are rarely exclusionist and seem more to revolve around the realm of technical meditational issues than meditation materials. Elite Buddhist Americans are a practical lot, wanting to use what works, and what is most comfortable in the painful positions that meditation calls for. Amidst such simple considerations, Buddhism can change. You may meditate in a chair, on a bench, on a gomden. And, if most use a zafu, well, that is an accommodation based upon individual choice also.

Others would not be so sanguine. Jan Nattier compares Elite Buddhists to the Chinese literati of the third and fourth centuries C.E., who, in the chaotically creative days after the fall of the Han, went to great pains to adapt what they liked of Buddhism to their own views—primarily, as in North America, with regard to the idea of emptiness. Buddhism in Six Dynasties China, as in contemporary North America, was initially attractive as a sort of "cultural exotica," but later was adapted and acculturated. The result in China was a Chinese family of Buddhisms that were radically different from their Indian origins and remain with us today (to the greatest degree, in the U.S. in the form of Zen, and in East Asia as Pure Land).(25) The problem here, as in China, lies, for many observers of Buddhism in the West, not so much in the changes occurring as in the attitude behind the changes. Tessa Bartholomeusz acerbically critiques the American fascination with the "East" and its symbols as a form of neo-Orientalism, maintaining that a fragmentary appropriation of Asian religions as a means of personal self-discovery reenacts the "Orientalist politics" of domination. Here again, her critique centers on an authority for determining religious and cultural choices seated in the individual.(26) She is specifically concerned with sympathizers, whom she refers to in the Buddhist context as "Buddhophiles," and not converts. Nevertheless, in her view, the decontextualization and commodification of Asian music, history, religious artifacts, and objects by both scholars and "Buddhophiles" is evidence of the continuing arrogance and presumptive authority of Westerners towards their former economic and continuing spiritual colonies in the East.

If the level of rhetoric here seems too high for a discussion of the uses of over-priced pillows, consider again the centrality of both meditation and personal choice to the devotees of Elite Buddhism. The point that Bartholomeusz makes is well taken. Elite Buddhists are, unconsciously for the most part, it is true, attempting to make a monoculture of their received traditions. In their discourses on emptiness and in their choices of seating, the variety of Buddhism is lost, and with that variety goes some of its intellectual, historical, and emotional complexity. The cultural and political diversity of global Buddhisms seems to have been flattened, mainstreamed (as Patrick, our one of our cushion makers has, perhaps naively, desired)--all in an effort to reach the market of potential Buddhists out there and confirm the predilections of those already on the inside. The contours of the world's Buddhist landscapes appear to have been smoothed out for what may, unfortunately, be the biggest vehicle yet—the wide American SUV (sports utility vehicle).

Nevertheless, ultimately, even the longing for diversity and righteously indignant responses such as that of Bartholomeusz may miss the point, fingering as they still do residual, essentialist, and static notions of Buddhist authenticity and history. The boundaries of authenticity and authority that she delineates are not, for me, as I have described it with regard to cushions, so clear.(27) This is not to say that Orientalism as a historical category of Asian-Western relationships is inapplicable to the conditions of consumption that I am describing. Kornfield's own writings are clear evidence of the sorts of Elite Buddhist positions to which we must be attuned. But, much of our condemnation (though perhaps not our sadness) of even the most egregious misinterpretations and misappropriations seems vain. The history of Buddhism, of many religions, is one of ideas and practices, as commodities, texts, and bodies, crossing boundaries of time, space, and language, not as whole and complete systems, but as fragments, open-ended gestures, inevitably to be spun into new forms. As Brunner, Ulf Hannerz, and other anthropologists have argued for years, acculturation or cultural change (poor words, but we do not have space for that argument) are inevitable, both in some imagined slower-paced past and in today's hyperactive, hyper-capitalist globalized milieu. Religions, and all other sets of embodied practices, change as the people who embody them change. They move as the people who embody them move. Consumption—and capitalism—reflects and guides our changing sense of ourselves, spawning transformation, as Daniel Miller has observed, with new homogeneity and new heterogeneity.(28)

There is no doubt that Elite Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers have "misconstrued" the received historical traditions of Buddhism in idea and practice for both venal and noble reasons. They will continue to do so—creatively, painfully, and, sometimes, domineeringly and harmfully. As Bartholomeusz argues, our focus should be on the process. And in that process, Elite Buddhist Americans and the murky pool of sympathizers surrounding them will make something new. It will not, we hope, be something soulless, passionless, slick, and glossy. But it will, no doubt, be very little like that with which they began. Ultimately, for Buddhists and scholars alike, our emphasis and interest should remain with the making and not that unknown and unknowable outcome.


1. I am not the first to make this claim. Among the notable works in American religious history that have focused upon consumption and the construction of religious practices and identities are Andrew R. Heinze, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search For American Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying & Selling Of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

2. Daniel Miller, "Consumption as the Vanguard of History," in Daniel Miller, ed. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies (New York: Routledge, 1995) 48.

3. Miller, "Consumption" 34.

4. Edward Tenner. "How the Chair Conquered the World." The Wilson Quarterly Online ( Reprinted from the Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997.

5. Of course, other sorts of Buddhists, certainly those involved in the engaged Buddhist movement, have reconfigured the relationship between materialism and religion in their aim of social justice. But these are really separate matters. Interpretations of engaged Buddhism such as Sallie King's, in a recent anthology, give little sense of how our relationships with the material both indicate and result in the construction of religious/social practices and identities. That is not her aim. See Sallie B. King, "Conclusion: Buddhist Social Activism" in Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, eds. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996) 409-413. As Miller notes, what is often seen as an anti-consumption stance on that part of the green movement or many Buddhist Americans, in fact actually constitutes a significant transformation of consumption practices. Miller, "Consumption" 47.

6. Todd Stein, "Zen Sells." Shambhala Sun 8 (November, 1999) 2:37.

7. Schmidt 13.

8. The name in Japanese, while sometimes translated "sewn seat" by cushion makers, actually means simply "seat" or "cushion" in Chinese ideographs. It is used as the translation for the Sanskrit word asana, "seat." Zafu and the related verb to sit in Chinese, zuo, have everyday meanings, but they also may refer to the specific kind of sitting done in meditation and particularly in Zen meditation. I did expend some effort on attempting to fill in the genealogy of this commodity, but have been able to find out little more than that it appears to be associated with the Soto school in Japan.

9. The prices quoted here, as elsewhere, are certainly out of date, but increases in cushion prices, as in the larger economy, have been small over the last year or more. In any case, I supply them as an indication of the relative expense for each item.

10. Dinty W. Moore, The Accidental Buddhist (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1997) 93.

11. Moore 93.

12. Don Morreale, ed. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998) 370.

13. For brief statements of Nattier's typology, see her "Buddhism Comes To Main Street," Wilson Quarterly, 21 (Spring 1997) 2, 72 or "Visible and Invisible," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Fall 1995) 42-49.

14. Thomas Tweed, "Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures: Sympathizers, Adherents, and the Study of Religion" in Duncan Ryuuken Williams and Christopher S. Queen eds., American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 1999) 71-90.

15. Thomas A. Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 : Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992) xxiv and chapter two.

16. Tweed, "Night-stand" 84.

17. From the Tricycle ad rate card, fall 1999, which can be found on the magazine's web site at

18. From the Shambhala Sun ad rate card, fall 1999. For a copy, send e-mail to

19. Many Asian and Asian American Buddhist leaders, on the other hand, while usually open-minded about practice and congregational make-up, do not often seem to take an active interest in the goal of a unified Buddhism. The doctrinal and ritual distinctions between types of Buddhism are very real for them, if not always based upon an entirely accurate historical perspective.

20. Jack Kornfield, "American Buddhism," in Morreale xxi-xxx.

21. According to Kornfield, the "integration" of meditative practice into normative American lifestyles is part of a process of Buddhist development in the West that also includes shared practice between traditional Buddhist divisions, democratization, and feminization.

22. In describing a rough organizational parallel to the sort of individualization of practice Kornfield describes, Morreale notes that there has been a "ten-fold increase" in North American Buddhist centers claiming a non-sectarian designation and refers to such centers under the label "Buddhayana." For Morreale, the development of local organizational autonomy under a principle of self-ascribed non-sectarianism signals the growth of an ecumenical movement or, as he puts it, a tendency towards "polydenominationalism" in Buddhist America centered around meditation. Don Morreale, "Everything Has Changed in Buddhist America," in Morreale xv.

23. We should not imagine that any degree of affiliation or conversion to Buddhism (or any other religion) will necessarily entail a thorough abandonment of prior values and habits and no transformation or reinterpretation of the received practices and ideologies. It never happens that way.

24. Edward M. Brunner, "Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism," American Anthropologist 96 (1994) 2, 408.

25. Jan Nattier "Who is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America" in Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds., The Faces of Buddhism in America (Berkeley: UC Press, 1998) 191-192.

26. Tessa Bartholomeusz "Spiritual Wealth and Neo-Orientalism" in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies 98: 35 (Winter 1998) 1, 38.

27. Bartholomeusz 36-37. It is also not at all clear to me that North American religious adaptation, co-optation, or decontextualization, however crass and misguided, or even harmful, is necessarily equivalent to Orientalist domination.

28. See Daniel Miller, Capitalism : An Ethnographic Approach (New York: Berg, 1997) 15.




Zen's Big Stick: The Kyosaku
The Encouragement Stick
Tricycle/Winter 1998 Volume 8, Number 2

Deshimaru Roshi on the Kyosaku

Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982) studied at the Soto monastery of Eiheiji and received dharma transmission from Kodo Sawaki in 1965. After founding the Association Zen Internationale in Paris in 1967, he went on to create more than one hundred European dojos and was recognized by the Soto Zen hierarchy as kaikyosan, or head of Buddhist teaching, for Europe.

After hearing that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism was to be found in Zen, I went to the Engakuji Temple, a Rinzai Temple, in Kamakura for a sesshin. We got up every morning at 2 A.M. and did zazen until 6 A.M. And at night there was no sleeping. We did zazen outside with the mosquitoes. And then the kyosaku - I received the stick from morning until night, and my body had turned all red. Five days went by. I kept my patience. But then, on the sixth day, the Kyosaku-man, who must have been sleepy like everyone else, hit me with the stick - not on the shoulders, but on the top of the head. I got angry and jumped up and hit him back. We fought. Now, in Rinzai Temples, as everyone faces each other while in zazen, they all saw the fight. Everyone jumped up in order to stop me. But I was a champion swordsman at the time, and I had no difficulty keeping them off me. Of course, this has nothing to do with religion; it is just violence. Anyway, I had had enough, and so I went off to see the Master - who was in his room sleeping - and I woke him up and told him that I wished to leave, that I wanted to stop zazen. I told him all about the incident which had just taken place, and he laughed. “In the history of Zen,” the Master said, “no one but you has ever attacked the Kyosaku-man.”

In fact, this incident became famous - so much so that Japanese Rinzai monks were scared of me. And my own Master, Kodo Sawaki, would always warn the Kyosaku-man, “Watch out for Deshimaru when you hit him.” Consequently, everyone was afraid of me, and so I never got the kyosaku during zazen. The Kyosaku-men always kept clear of me. This is not so good. Later I came to regret that all this had happened.

- from The Voice of the Valley: Zen Teachings by Roshi Taisen Deshimaru, edited by Philippe Coupey


Zoketsu Norman Fischer: Putting Away the Stick

I remember my first time inside a zendo. I loved the feeling. The atmosphere - profoundly quiet, but supercharged with energy. The way everyone sat absolutely straight and motionless, dressed in black, in the very precise, dim room. The ambience was much enhanced by the use of the “encouragement stick” that was carried during almost every period of zazen.

A long, thin, flat hardwood stick, the kyosaku was marched up and down the aisles with great ceremony by the experienced students. If anyone fell asleep during zazen (as happened more than occasionally) the monitor would pounce. Whack! . . . whack! One good hit on each shoulder and the wary offender was awake. The sound, repeated unexpectedly but regularly throughout the period, made the feeling in the zendo electric.

The kyosaku, the older students would be quick to tell you, did not actually hurt, despite its dramatic sound. If the monitor hit you properly, the experience was invigorating. I frequently requested the service, and found this to be true. Later on, I carried it myself.

Occasionally, of course, monitors messed up. When their aim or attention flagged, the results could be painful. There were also now and again monitors whose intentions were not always good; who, subject to minor fits of sadism, seemed to miss more often than others.

In addition to this anomaly, there were two other important downsides to kyosaku practice. Because the zendo was open, and newcomers were constantly coming to sit, it was impossible to orient everyone to the kyosaku. I used to wonder what such first-timers thought - or felt - when they heard a gunshot-like report coming out of nowhere as they peacefully meditated.

It also became gradually apparent, quite oddly, that the kyosaku, and the samurai spirit it fostered, served to increase rather than decrease sleepiness in the zendo. It is difficult to say why this is so, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that externally imposed discipline has a deadening effect on the spirit, and the kyosaku, whatever its real purpose and intention, was understood as external coercion by many people.

The Gulf War of 1991 was a very upsetting time in our sangha. Several of our sangha members had relatives who were in the combat zones, and signs of the almost gleeful response to the war in the society at large were everywhere. Much was said and written in the press about how the war was in a sense an answer to Vietnam: this time, we were winning. In the midst of that time, our abbot, feeling that the kyosaku was a symbol of the violence that is never far away from any of us, and has certainly been a part of Zen history in Japan, put the stick away for good, as a gesture toward peace.

We no longer carry it, the zendo feels much more friendly and compassionate, and people rarely sleep.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a writer and poet, serves as co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He is currently at work on a book entitled “Taking Our Places: Mentoring Young People Coming of Age.”


T. Griffith Foulk: The Stick in Zen Theory and Practice

It is Zen's proud claim that it alone, of all Buddhist traditions, has conveyed the Buddha's awakening in an unbroken line from master to disciple, “from mind to mind,” without making use of any texts, verbal teachings, or other expedients. At the same time, however, classical sources give the impression that Zen masters actually used any and all means at their disposal - enigmatic words, gestures, shouts, and blows - to bring their disciples to awakening.

The classical accounts of Chinese masters contain numerous anecdotes in which they make judicious use of sticks to strike their disciples. In some stories, this treatment is said to bring on realization. More often, it simply indicates the master's rejection of the words spoken by his student, who is judged to be caught up in delusion.

The meaning of blows in classical Zen hinges on two conceits. The first is upaya, the Mahayana concept of “skillful means” - devices used by a bodhisattva to lead beings to awakening. Such devices, however deceptive or harsh they might seem, are always said in the end to be informed by wisdom and motivated by compassion.

The second conceit is a metaphor likening the spiritual authority of a Zen master to the civil authority of a magistrate. Consider the following remark, which appears in the biography of the ninth-century disciple Chun Tsun�su: Seeing a monk coming, the master said, “[Yours is] a clear-cut case, but I release you of the thirty blows [you deserve].”

The master's use of standard legal terms - “case” and “thirty blows” - implies that he sits as judge of another's spiritual attainment and finds the monk lacking. Medieval Chinese magistrates were empowered to judge accused parties and to mete out punishment - often consisting of a set number of blows from a cane - on the spot. This story does end with the master actually striking his disciple, but it is well to note that in Zen literature, such blows are as much a rhetorical device as a record of actual behavior. Scholarly commentaries on “old cases” - koans - frequently employ the expressions “I strike” and “thirty blows” to indicate that portions of a dialogue are guilty of delusion.

In contemporary Rinzai Zen, the master receives disciples for dokusan consultation holding a stick called a nyoi (Sanskrit chintamani, “wish-fulfilling gem”). Chiefly an emblem of spiritual authority, the nyoi may be used on occasion to strike. Such blows are interpreted in the context of Zen's heritage in legal rhetoric, and indeed may be seen as a kind of ritual citation of it. Any blows given in dokusan are also regarded as “skillful means,” aimed at helping the disciple cut attachment to deluded concepts.

This brings us, finally, to the sticks used in Japanese Zen meditation halls today. The Rinzai keisaku is a flat, tapered stick about three feet long, typically made of oak, wielded with two hands like a baseball bat. The Soto kyosaku, made of hardwood, is also flat and tapered, but only about sixteen inches long and held in one hand. Because sitters face the rear wall of the meditation platform in Soto practice and the center of the room in Rinzai, the procedures for use of the stick differ in some details, but the basic principles are the same.

On the one hand, sitters may request twin blows on the shoulders by raising the hands in gassho as the hall monitor passes with the stick; such requests are typically motivated by pain (a blow to the shoulders can take your mind off how much your legs hurt) or by drowsiness (it can help wake you up). On the other hand, the monitor may observe a sitter nodding off, slumping, or squirming from pain; in such cases, the offender's shoulders are tapped with the stick to indicate that he or she should “request” attention.

In both traditions, the monks who carry the stick are senior figures in the monastic bureaucracy, although not of the level of an abbot or Zen master. They wield the stick in the interest of communal discipline as well as for the encouragement of individual sitters. A typical entry in the rules of a Rinzai training monastery has only this to say: When handling the keisaku, keep a close eye on those sitting in zazen, and strike them when they need it, regardless of whether they are dozing or not.

In the Rinzai monastery where I trained in the mid-1970s, according to an unspoken etiquette monks who were sitting earnestly and well were shown respect by being hit vigorously and often; those known as laggards were ignored by the hall monitor or given little taps if they requested to be hit. Nobody asked about the “meaning” of the stick, nobody explained, and nobody ever complained about its use.

T. Griffith Foulk is a professor of Religion at Sarah Lawrence College.


Natalie Goldberg: The Black Dragon's Jewels

I see the shadow of Katagiri Roshi moving across the white wall, holding the kyosaku up in front of him - approaching, then passing me, as the morning light barely seeps through the east-facing windows. I am tense - it is so early and there are so many hours ahead. I put my hands together, asking him to use it on his next round.

Because I have on coarse long underwear, then a thick sweater and a wool shawl, I can barely feel the wood placed on my right shoulder - the signal to get ready. I bend my head to the left. Swack! The sound is loud. Then another hit. Now the left shoulder, head tilted to the right. Really, the sound is more like a thump - I have on so many clothes - winter is what I remember in Minneapolis. Roshi moves on. I sigh. It was a moment's diversion, a slight entertainment, but still the time of sitting ahead is vast.

The kyosaku has not been used anyplace I've sat since Roshi died.

The kyosaku was part of a whole path I entered. Something foreign, Japanese, that I found - of all places - in the Midwest. In this huge heartland I discovered another heart - Oriental, straight-backed, precise, organized - down even to drinking the hot water you cleaned your rice bowl with. How I loved it. It appealed to my laissez-faire upbringing; I longed for structure, to be told what to do. I found freedom in form. I could drop deeper into wildness.

What do I think of the kyosaku?

Actually, Roshi didn't technically use a formal kyosaku. He employed a meditation brace that he acquired as a young monk at Eiheiji monastery. Late at night, as he sat alone in lotus position, it stood up on the floor between his legs and was held under his chin. A sly way to keep upright - if he fell asleep he wouldn't fall over. Later, he cut it in half; it became “our stick.” Written on it in Japanese from the Blue Cliff Record was, “The Black Dragon's jewels are everywhere.”

He once broke it, hitting Nonin, one of the big poet monks in our sangha. Then Roshi obtained an even smaller one. In his last two years he stopped using it altogether. In a lecture one evening, he muttered, “I've become tired of hitting you like old cows.”

But for most of my training with him, I didn't think that much about it. Instead, I tried to immerse myself in practice. “When you walk in the mist, you get wet,” Dogen said. The stick was supposed to wake us up. I put my hands in gassho; sometimes it was voluntary - I'd ask for it, and sometimes I was nodding off so deeply I wasn't even aware I was in a zendo - Roshi would come up behind me and place it on my right shoulder. For the thirty seconds of the ritual I was alert. Then, usually, I entered broken sleep again.

Was it ever really helpful? Not that much, but - and here I'm going to use a word seldom associated with Zen training - it was fun. Does that mean I didn't take the practice seriously? I didn't take the practice. It took me. Why should I discriminate? Instead, I was happy - and very lucky. Minnesota winters at 5 a.m. were mostly abysmal; my personality did not fit in the Midwest; I was going through a divorce with a man I loved. But something was happening at that old house on Lake Calhoun, and I couldn't stay away.

At that time I was a poet. I told my writer friends the hottest poetry was happening at the zendo. They never came, but however carelessly I watched my own mind in meditation, I minutely studied and examined Katagiri's mind when he lectured every Wednesday night and Saturday morning, when he sat, walked, smiled, ate, bowed - and yes, also how he held the kyosaku and the way he used it. It wasn't then, in my thirties, that I understood how good my life was, but fourteen years later, I know something magnificent happened to me in that cold Minnesota town.

The kyosaku was a component of a tremendous training that gave me my life. Would I use it now? Probably not - it didn't matter to me that much. I didn't worry if Katagiri misused it or if it meant incorrect power - I trusted him.

But there's no Katagiri now and I'm a woman of fifty. What is important? How can Zen continue to transmit the practice heart in our culture?

Meditating at 4:30 a.m., sitting without moving, holding the chant cards just so, eating oryoki style, bowing to the zafu, lighting incense, sewing a rakusu - all gave backbone and radiance to my early, nebulous life. Notice I did not include the kyosaku in the list above. It's not really good or bad, but sleep was sleep - nothing woke me in the zendo but my own energy. And as a diversion, the kyosaku was another pleasant connection with the teacher I loved. Maybe its use in practice is for the one who wields it.

Kyosaku? I could let go of it but what takes the place of what we decide doesn't work? And who decides what to eliminate? Too often, I make a decision out of opinion, convenience, laziness. How do we drink the blood of ego, spit it out and wake up?

Natalie Goldberg is a writer and painter. Her latest book is Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World.


Philip Kapleau
first became interested in Zen after World War II, as a court reporter at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Returning to Japan in 1953, he commenced a thirteen-year period of study under Soen Nakagawa, Sogaru Harada, and Hakuun Yasutani. He founded the Zen Center of Rochester, New York, in 1966.

The kyosaku may be applied to rouse a sleepy sitter, to enliven a weary one, or to spur on a striving one, but it is never used as a chastisement or out of personal pique. This is clear from the fact that the one struck raises his hands in gassho to show his gratitude to the godo [hall monitor], who in turn acknowledges this gesture with a bow, in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding. In the monastery the heaviest blows of the kyosaku are mostly reserved for the earnest and the courageous and not wasted on the slackers or the timid. The adage that a poor horse can't be made to run faster no matter how hard or how often he is whipped is well understood in the zendo.

In Soto monasteries and temples sitters face the wall and not each other as they do in the Rinzai sect, so the godo applies the kyosaku from the rear, at his own discretion, and occasionally without any warning. In the hands of a sensitive, enlightened godo, able to strike when the iron is hot, or for that matter to make the iron hot by striking, the kyosaku is unequaled for raising one's concentrative effort to its greatest intensity. Just as a whip sensitively used on a racing horse can drive him to even greater speed without harm, so the kyosaku perceptively applied to the back of a striving sitter can, without paining him, elicit that superhuman burst of energy which leads to the dynamic one-pointedness of mind indispensable for kensho. Even at less critical moments, particularly in midafternoon or evening, when a slumping, exhausted body has slackened the mind's tautness, opening the way to invading hordes of thoughts, a well-timed blow across the shoulders will knock them all from the head, simultaneously releasing unsuspected stores of energy.

In this act compassion, force, and wisdom are joined.

There is no denying that for those Westerners unable to disabuse themselves of the notion that beatings with a stick under any circumstances are an affront to their dignity the kyosaku will always remain a menace rather than a welcome goad.

- from The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau


Lawrence Shainberg: Designated Hitter

Two days before assigning me the job of wielding the kyosaku, or so-called “helping stick,” Sensei gives a wonderful talk about it: The alertness the receiver derives from it if properly struck on the pressure points; the way in which its sound unites and energizes, not only the junkei and the one he strikes, but the zendo as a whole; most important, the egolessness - the lack of aggression and anger required of anyone who means to wield the stick correctly. Properly used, he explains, the kyosaku offers a perfect embodiment of generosity and, for that matter, of Buddhism itself, as defined in the Sixth Paramita: No giver, no receiver, and nothing given. “Between the junkei and the person he or she strikes, there is no separation. Who is the subject, who the object? Who strikes? Who is struck? Who feels the pain? Who the energy?”

Two days later, as I stand from my cushion and move toward the altar to take the stick in hand, these lofty teachings are very much in my mind. I'm slightly intimidated, of course, at the thought of striking flesh instead of the pillow on which I've been practicing, but what is my anxiety beside the responsibility I've been given - the chance to give my sangha-mates a jolt of energy and to fulfill the Sixth Paramita? Bowing, lifting the stick, I feel as if I understand for the first time what it means to practice for others rather than for myself. For an instant, I look back with disdain on the selfishness I've left behind. Who knows? Maybe my stick will be the spark that carries someone over into kensho!

Meanwhile, I am anything but unconscious of the fact that I've been granted permission to stand and stretch my legs while others continue sitting. In a practice that has offered me endless evidence of my tiny, chattering mind, my cowardice, laziness, and insincerity - not to mention the courage, wisdom, and sincerity that, as any dharma student will tell you, are many times more disconcerting than their opposites - I am suddenly charged with prowling the zendo, gripping a long maple stick the way a drum major grips his baton, or, more to the point, an infantryman his rifle. For all the wonderful texts I've read about the “man of no-rank,” I am suddenly, as I view it, a “senior student,” a potential monk and - who knows? - a roshi-in-waiting.

Adjusting my posture, I lift the stick and begin my measured walk between rows of students deep in zazen. I'm evaluating posture. I'm thinking who looks drowsy and needs to be awakened. I'm thinking, What, afraid of a little pain? And you call yourself a Zen student? Mostly, though, I feel as if I'm involved in some sort of popularity contest and, as one by one they do not (by placing palms together) ask for the stick, I feel as if they are rejecting me. Not the dharma, not the Sixth Paramita, not the stimulation of the stick or the distraction it can sometimes cause or the dependency it can become. Me. They're rejecting me and what I have to offer!

Ah, but what's this? My first customer!

Tall, bulky and red-faced, he is a man in his mid-fifties here for his first sesshin. At the sight of his gassho, I feel as though doubled in height and so inflated with holiness that I'm in danger of floating out of the room.

What we forget, I think, when we enter these practices is that, even at the very beginning, even within five minutes of sincere pursuit of them, they uproot dualistic mind, dissolving form and exposing us to formlessness - and that liberating though this may be, there is always a response, a recoil, a grasping after form as the dualistic mind seeks a new object to reestablish itself. For me, now, the stick is that object. My customer is that object. As I cradle the stick in my thumbs and gassho in return, I am filled with love for him and for his meaty shoulders, which make a sound beneath my walloping stick like a baseball flying off the bat of Mark McGwire. What was that about the Sixth Paramita?

Is there no one swinging this stick now? No one's shoulders receiving it? No separation between my customer and me? Why else does this first strike resound in my mind even now? Believe me, it still hurts.

Lawrence Shainberg is a writer and contributing editor to Tricycle. His most recent book is Ambivalent Zen: A Memoir.


The first time I carried the stick, I shook all over. I had entered my year-long term as shuso, or head trainee, in my sangha only a few weeks before, and had spent that time hurriedly coordinating the spring sesshin, getting used to my new seat, remembering a thousand new details. I had little time to worry about the kyosaku, a symbol of discipline, authority, and self-containment. When I picked it up the first time, I felt like an impostor.

In my sangha, the kyosaku is used only during sesshin, given only to those who ask for it. I am one who often asks, who welcomes the brief, sharp blow on tense shoulders, on an unsteady mind. The kyosaku is sometimes called the encouragement stick, and I sometimes need encouragement. Its very sound has power for me; the sudden crack in the silent hall can turn me into a child, bring up tears and shivers, dreams. It can ring like a bell, calling me awake from across the room.

But to carry it was something else, a responsibility greater than I'd imagined.

In the evenings of sesshin, when one long period of zazen followed another and we descended together into the living silence of those hours, I would have to rise when I least wanted to move at all. I would follow a prescribed pattern through the hall: bowing, turning, approaching the altar and taking the stick; bowing, turning again and again, walking in slow attention up and down the rows.

As I walk behind, a person makes gassho; our shadows mingle. I turn to face her back; we bow together in the dim hall. Unbidden, her name enters my mind. I am shaking, hesitant. I strike, and struggle against the urge to touch her. Night after night, the same walk, the same slowly diminishing anxiety, a woman's peculiar fear: Am I too hard? Am I too soft? I resist the urge to soothe or be soothed. Her name comes again, we bow, and I turn and move on, struggling now to let her go.

One day during the fall sesshin, I was upset; I thought then that my teacher was disappointed in me, that I had failed him. This was also part of my practice then, to be struck by these hard feelings.

The bell rang and we sat and I had to rise in terrible reluctance and shame and pick up the stick and walk. I was false, artificial, a cheat. And when I passed my teacher, he made gassho and bowed forward, offering his back, his trust. My heart opened in gratitude for his kindness and love. I struck him, and moved lightly on.

This is a gift. This is service - to risk a mistake, to move when everyone else is still, to be hard when hardness is required. What is essential in the practice is to meet each moment completely, to be whole, to meet each back, each shoulder, each need as required. To be nothing but the stick and the blow. To leave it behind. The walk became a skating dance, all rustles and tiny whispers, punctuated by sharp sound.

The last time, I cried when I put the stick down. Done with that dance.

Now, someone else carries the stick behind me. The new shuso, who sometimes wishes he didn't have to rise in the silence and move through the stillness, walks slowly up the row behind me in a faint rustle of robes, and I see his shadow approaching. I make gassho, we bow together, I bend and turn my head away, he touches my shoulder with the stick and strikes me awake. We bow and he turns away, moving on.

Sallie Jiko Tisdale is a lay teacher with the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of several books and a contributing editor to Tricycle.


Barbara Chiko Sovino: Sticks and Stones

“No Zen for me, never,” I told my boyfriend. “No thanks. Not some macho Zen sadist hitting me with a stick.”

Once, that same boyfriend came home from sesshin with his T-shirt glued to his shoulders with dried blood from the blows. I told him, “Good thing you were never a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp during World War II. They exploded starved stomachs with raw rice and water. Now you're getting beat up to get enlightened? Perfect.”

I yammered on. He moved into the Zen center, and I moved to California. Out here, everyone did Zen, even women. I had never met a woman Zen student, but where I worked in a social service bureau east of L.A., I worked alongside a woman who had a Zen teacher in San Diego. One day I asked if she ever got beat. She looked perplexed. I clarified by asking if a monitor had ever hit her with a stick. She said, “Yeah, when I ask for it.”

She said it so casually, like no big deal. I asked, “What do you mean, ask for it?” She explained you only get hit when you put your hands together to signal the monitor. When I told her I had thought the Zen monitor would come around and whack you on the head, the shoulders, whenever or wherever he wanted, she laughed. She explained that only happened in times of yore, or at least not in any California zendo she had been in. The way she said it made it sound like it was a truly archaic practice. And her dismissal of any descriptions that included “sadist” or “macho” created an ocean of distance from my own fears and preconceptions. I said I wanted to try it.

That was fourteen years ago. Sometimes today in the zendo, I ask for the stick to keep me awake; sometimes for its salutary effects on the strain in my shoulders. I can hear from the first crack whether the monitor is new and inexperienced or whether he/she is engrossed in his/her own power trip. With my back to the monitors, I can tell - or so I think. Some monitors are sadistic and macho and misanthropic. Some are not.

But here's what's really amazing: How easy it was, once I began to sit, to see where the real pain lay. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me? Wrong! Names hurt. Labels kill. Confronting yourself is ten times more horrendous than two pain-relieving raps on the shoulders. Physical pain can obscure, hide, and immunize us against the real pain caused by the mind and inure us to the responsibility that we must claim for wallowing in our suffering. The mind, in fact, can cause more suffering than the body.

The stick? If it can help to awaken, I say, bring it on.

Barbara Chiko Sovino is a social worker in Los Angeles.