The zen tradition is well-known for use of the kyosaku (sometimes spelled keisaku), a stick that is whacked on the shoulders and backs of meditators in order to keep them awake. When the whack is administered correctly, it’s an efficient anti-sleep tool. In Kosho Uchiyama’s classic book Opening the Hand of Thought, he suggests that in his practice centers and temples, that a kyosaku should not be used during long retreats.

Bringing Toys Into Retreats

Uchiyama argues against the use of kyosaku during a retreat because it ends up being used like a toy. If someone is walking around with a stick, a meditator will attempt to sit up right and appear awake in order to avoid being hit. Instead of actually meditating and being forced to deal with the boredom that comes from hours of long sitting, they’re actually just playing a game. Or alternatively, a person who is sitting long hours might actually plan to be hit by a stick in the afternoon. In order to make their retreat more interesting, being hit by a stick actually becomes an event.

This is something I’ve noticed myself during retreat, all the different games the mind plays in order to ward off boredom. I’ve tried switching meditation cushions, playing songs in my head, even trying to sleep while meditating in order to avoid dealing with the boredom. He suggests taking the stick away and dealing with life as it is at the moment.

Toys In Everyday Life

I think the brilliance of the Zen tradition is the way they are able to bridge what happens in meditation to everyday life. Uchiyama further explains:

It seems to me that we spend all our lives playing with toys. It begins as soon as we are born. The first toy is the nipple of the milk bottle. When we are a little older, we turn to dolls and teddy bears. After that, it’s do-it-yourself kits, cameras, and cars. At adolescence, we move onto sex, and then come study and research, competition and sports, along with earnestness in business and perhaps the search for fame. This is all just playing with toys! Right up to our death, we exchange one toy for another, and we end our lives having done nothing but play with toys.

Doing zazen means to actualize the reality of life. Zazen is the self which is only the self of the universe, without any playing with toys. Zazen is like the time just before our death when all the toys have been taken away. Yet, even then, we look around for something to play with, if only for an instance.