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Author of this essay:

Yao Xiang Shakya
(February 23, 2014)

The Bitter Pill: Kanshiketsu
by Yao Xiang Shakya

In order to be perfect in any practice, seemingly useless experience must be undergone. Any disciple who has entered any kind of practice must begin (and continue) with seemingly unnecessary, futile things. But of course these things are a part of the discipline. Without such seemingly trifling things there can be no perfecting of the practice.



Karma, the act of intention, which includes most everything that we do, is unforgiving. Karma, perhaps because it is unforgiving, is what disciples focus on.

The mind thinks, the body moves, the tongue wags and consequences follow. It's the natural law of how things work here. Sobering, isn't it? Each disciple is encouraged to attend to the most seemingly useless act in order to perfect practice. Attention powers karma and protects the mind from harmful deeds.

In simple terms, the unforgiving nature of karma means we can't take anything back once it is thought, spoken or acted upon. It's like the proverbial spilt milk, once spilt it is spilt, and crying over it isn't going to change the fact the milk is spilt. It may sound somewhat like we are doomed, but actually all it means is we are responsible. Yes, that's it, responsible. Responsible is sobering. It is not blame but rather an ability to answer for and be accountable for our actions. Being responsible is one of the initial practices for spiritual adepts.

When we consider the potency of karma we give some serious thought to what we think, what we do with our body and what we say. Most of us are familiar with "speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil;" karma, our intentional actions are similar. Think no evil, do no evil and speak no evil, either set, we need to be heedful of our actions. It is the essence of all of the precepts and in a nutshell is a caution to "do no harm." When we slip and harm we need to be ready and responsible for the consequences that may follow. This does not mean to be foiled by karma, but to be aware that consequences follow what we do.

This description is the most basic understanding of how karma works. It by no means covers the complexity of action, but it gives us a place to discuss at least one side of Karma. The side referred to here is the seemingly innocent side of the "victim." It's when we feel we are the innocent, injured party.

The Victim Sickness

There are countless acts of injury from bias, prejudice, and discrimination to physical, emotional and mental harm. It is safe to say we all have been or will get hurt at some time or another. ‘Hurt done' more times than not leads to the building of an identity as a "victim."

In general, when we are wounded we feel as though we are a "victim" and we feel that someone else is responsible for the wounds. When we build an interior identity of a "victim" we are wide open to intentional acts of retaliation. We feel justified in an ‘eye for eye attack' on the one who has harmed us.

Our retaliatory acts may be quite subtle and run the gamut of literally ramming a pick-up truck through the front door of the offender to secretly wishing them their due, ignoring their presence, blaming them for everything that seems to go awry, trumping them in a conversation or name calling. Poison, in any dose, is still poison. The consequences, however, generally follow suit in the lethality of the retaliation, the stronger the poison, the stronger the deadliness of the effect.

Initially we may feel as though our plight as the "injured victim" sounds reasonable and justifiable. The plight might hold water in a court of law but in the spiritual courts it leaks and keeps the initial harm endlessly erupting until we, the "injured party," swallow what might be called "the bitter pill." We may indeed be suffering from a sad and desperate set of circumstances. But it is important for us not to get swept up into supporting the role of "victim." We are far better off reckoning with the knowledge that we are in need of some form of spiritual treatment. The bitter pill is by far one of the strongest spiritual remedies, but there is preliminary work that is necessary.

We must be willing to drop indignant reactions to the suggestion that the work is with us and not the offender. Our huffy reaction only indicates our attachment to seeing ourselves as a victim and in no way lessens the necessity of our need for spiritual medication.

The bitter pill is just that; bitter! It's a tough, unappealing medicine and is, in general, only recommended for those who have a strong spiritual stomach. Saints and bodhisattvas come to mind or those who yearn for liberation above all other things. We gotta want it! This crowd is exceptionally able to let the bitter pill dissolve under the tongue knowing full well that an internal onslaught against the cure is sure to follow.

Often there is an up chuck of this remedy which begins with reason. Reason tends to captain this nausea that arises against the efficacy of the bitter pill. Reason mutters, "I have a right!" This indignant cry is in cahoots with a strong desire to get sympathy and to maintain a righteous, resentful attitude towards those who allegedly did the harm. Self-pity and self-vanity ambush us with feelings of loneliness and a desire to be heard and to "right" the wrong. These are internal tactics and side effects which harbor us in the victim role and keep us immature.

We forget. We are in pain and need a cure. These side effects are part of the injury and nothing more, but we want to point the blame for just about everything in some generalized fashion at the alleged perpetrators. Parents, family, accidents, illness, attacks of all kinds, violence, loss are just a few of the criminals that have done us wrong. These villains may indeed have done harm that is not in question here, nor is the legal consequences. The focus is spiritual liberation from acts of harm; those done by and done to others. We must want to be released from our inner malady in order to endure this treatment.

A big hurdle often arises even at the suggestion of the bitter pill and it is no surprise; it is simply that we feel innocent. The ego is a marvelous negotiator and convinces us that when we feel innocent we feel separated from our own responsibility. We fail to see that we are responsible for the response to the harm. Staying in the identity of the "injured party" makes swallowing a bitter pill nearly impossible. The villain in this scenario is forever someone else; and we believe that we are not sick.

The bitter pill is a timed release capsule starting with the realization that everything we react to is a distorted past. Holding old, worn out and distorted material views of reactive patterns against the offenders has poisoned us. We must be able to see this for what it is. It is a trap door that most fall into, especially when we have a tendency to take things personally.

The First Round, Small Doses

Karma, we must remember, is unforgiving. We need to stop harboring the injuries of the past and focus on our present thoughts, speech and actions. These disciplines are essential on a spiritual path. These seemingly mundane actions in the present moment may even seem trifling since they do not pertain to the offender in question. We must relinquish the pursuit of righting the wrong.

A small dose of comfort is to realize every sentient being in the world suffers and every sentient being gets harmed. It's a universal condition of being on this planet. It is not a personal hit, but a result of cause and effect so complicated that it is not worth the time or effort to attempt to decipher it. And more importantly, it's not important to getting free of the resentment, fear, anger and hate stored up in the housing of many injured parties. This first round is indispensible and allows us to prepare for the stronger, more potent dose.

The Bitter Pill

In China, a monk asked Master Yűen-men, "What is Buddha?" Yűen-men replied, "A dried shit-stick."

The bitter pill is Buddha. And what is Buddha? A dried shit-stick. This is it. This realization of Buddha is it. But we can only know Buddha when we let go of concern for the material world. When we are concerned about our rights, our justifications, our injuries we are unable to be Buddha, to be a dried shit-stick, a kanshiketsu. These concerns are material concerns.

Aoyama, in her book Zen Seeds helps us to see the "shit-stick" as Buddha. In China and in Japan, toilet paper was known as a "shit-stick" or kanshiketsu. The shit-stick, somewhat like a wooden spatula, served a purpose that everyone in the monastery agreed was a necessity. In other words, Buddha is essential and is the essence of even the smallest and perhaps even the smelliest, most distasteful parts of being alive.

Toilet work, although at times unpleasant, is essential and toilet paper may rank quite high amongst the toilet hierarchy. If we are unable to do this work, we will get sick and sicker and eventually die. Furthermore, toilet work is universal, everyone does it.

Thus far the bitter pill requires that we see that what we call foul are Buddha mind. We must be willing to drop the "by reason of just rights" in order to begin to see what comes into our life is Buddha; it may be sweet or putrid, it is all Buddha. Buddha is a dried shit-stick. There are no ranks in Buddha mind, nothing is left out.

Every day the kanshiketsu, just like toilet paper, readily cleans up the stinky, smelly waste without complaint. This is Buddha. It is just ready and available and when it is not there we miss it. When there is no toilet paper there is often a sense of urgency. We know we need toilet paper but we may not know we need Buddha mind. We feel relief when toilet paper is replaced. Even in this small hermitage we are promptly told when toilet paper is missing. Hurriedly we replace it. When we are Buddha, there is relief.

This straightforward teaching is easy to understand but more often than not it is looked upon as a bitter pill. There is no righting a wrong, or a declaration of a winner or a loser; there is no one who hears our case and sides with us. Buddha is a kanshiketsu and is willing to clean up anything from top to bottom. This bitter pill is the cure for those who feel wronged by any number of things or persons when they are able to clean up what happens from top to bottom without protest, resentment and grievance. We must be willing to clean up anything within the kingdom of the ego-self and make our way to Buddha mind. If we harbor ill-will, grudges and bitterness we become sick and spite builds like undigested matter in the ego-self mind.

We get churned up and turn sour when we argue and debate "our rights." When we feel injured, in particular, we want justice done! We forget about the necessity of Buddha, of our need every day of Buddha mind. We fall victim to a sense of deserving better and refuse to consider that if Buddha is a kanshiketsu, what are we?

We forget that all things are precious, fragile and subject to decay. We consider ourselves better than a kanshiketsu, better than toilet paper. We seek to become something more important than to clean-up excrement; we want to be more than a shit-stick even though all beings value and are thankful for the kanshiketsu. Can we be thankful for Buddha coming into our life no matter how Buddha comes? This is the bitter pill!

The mess of injury is the mess that needs to be cleaned up by being Buddha, by knowing what we are. It's a very private matter, a matter that only we, injured party, is able to heal with being Buddha.

Master Yűen-men laughs. "Be used up," he adds, "be a dried shit-stick." But you can't pretend. No faking! If we put on airs of being Buddha, we stink of rotting Zen. Engage fully in being used up by whatever comes into your life. This is being Buddha this is being a "shit-stick!" This Truth is the bitter medicine we need in order to get over ‘harms' done. The material world is biased and prejudiced; divided and dualistic, but this medicine, this Buddha medicine is never partial or one-sided, Buddha is beyond the limits of being an injured party.

Humming Bird