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Author of this essay:

Yao Xin Shakya
Rev. Yao Xin Shakya, Brussels, 12 June 2013

Huang-Po's Slap
by Rev. Yao Xin Shakya

A young novice, the future emperor Tai Chung, asked the old master Huang Po:

"If we need to seek nothing, not even Buddha, Dharma and Sangha , why do you still prostrate yourself in front of the altar?"

"Though I don't seek the Buddha, Dharma or Sangha, it is my custom." answered the old master.

The future emperor insisted: "What purpose does it serve?"

The old master answered by a slap in the face of the young novice, who exclaimed: "How uncouth you are!"

And the old master answered: "Where do you find any distinction between uncouth and refined?"

Imagine slapping the future Emperor of China! It might have been Huang Po's last act. The risk of harming this novice under his tutelage is life-threatening. Huang Po could be put to death for such a bold act and yet without any hesitation he strikes the insolent, impertinent greenhorn. The Master isn't swayed by title or position because he lives without fear of repercussions. The royal power of this young beginner does not overcome the Dharma in the hands of this old Master.

Huang Po's slap is a valiant Dharma act which expounds the truth to this would be Emperor. His intrepid response is as Hsu Yun advocates, "…living as a dead man." The unimportant self is nowhere to be found. The Buddha Self smacks the young man.

[The Dharma] It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you—begin to reason about it and you fall into error. -Huang-Po

Stunned by the slap the young ruler is incensed by such a bold blow to his ego. But Master Huang Po stays the course and drives the young ruler back with his question of "where do you find distinction…" His question nails the impudent youth without debate. In other words, he reminds this novice to notice how he cuts the world in two with his angry retort. There is no little, unimportant self in Huang Po to take offense, he does not snap back with a rejoinder. He does not take it personally. Instead he opens the Dharma for this young man. Huang Po is brilliant and benevolent.

No one is able to pretend to know the Dharma as Huang Po although we might try to do so. The sham, however, if we are lucky does not hold. We may attempt to attain the Dharma by arduous practices, esoteric and obscure teachings, and associations with well-known institutions. None of these activities replace or surpass the lightning bolt of a Dharma encounter.

We are, however not in the presence of such an old master as Huang Po. We are Zen clerics and practitioners in a Western context. We have spouses, jobs, and daily chores and stumble in our personal and spiritual work. This awkwardness is often part of the path, it usually means we like Huang Po's student, are novices. We may have practiced for many years, but length of time is no guarantee that the Dharma strikes. In fact, we may merely be religiously following the high ideals of Zen of "saving all beings" and penetrating our True nature." We may see these grand aspirations as religious acquisitions. We want to acquire Zen by buffing the small, unimportant self by mimicry of medieval monasticism. If we are lucky, something comes along that dumps us out of this impersonation. It often comes in the guise of a disappointment, heartbreak or shock of some sort in our ordinary, modern life. And when it comes it feels very much like Huang Po's slap. We may, at first react to it angrily but if we continue to listen and see we may be lucky enough to land on two wobbly feet on the Dharma. Here is how the Dharma slapped me.

For years I chased techniques, teachings of every sort and retreats with "celebrated" masters only to find myself striving in a spiritual quagmire. I mastered nothing because I was out of touch with the Dharma. I wanted to be a monk in a married life. I ended up trying to live two lives, one as a married man and the other as a monastic cleric. I failed to see that I split the world even though I was living it. I walked a path between two lakes of fire, one of doubt and the other of suffering. I was as young Emperor Tai Chung, insistent and impertinent. I thought that endurance acts of reducing my sleep to just a few hours a night would lead to the "right amount" of liturgical Dharma. I needed to be slapped in order to stop this nonsense. Luckily, the slap came.

The hand of the Old Master slapped me when after a few months of attempts to be a super Zen hero when my wife almost left me, when I almost lost my family and my job. CRACK! I stopped. Although some doubt remained I began to sober up from this striving addiction. I turned to simple, daily routines even though I found them distasteful for the most part. In all honesty it was all I could manage. Physically and mentally I was worn out. Nearly bankrupt by doubt and exhausted I began to understand Zen not as a fantastic set of ideas stapled to my daily life. I began being in harmony with what shows up in my life without the charade of the striving self to become a Zen monk. How many times do we need a good slap in our daily life to wake us up? Huang Po acted directly, naturally like a mother with an insulting son. SLAP! It is the Dharma of cause and effect. When we separate from the Dharma we are likely to construct mental treasures that are apart from "real life" and SLAP! My daily and very crazy schedule was my mental treasure that separated me. I lost the basics of the path; I dropped the harmony and simplicity of the precepts. My wife almost left. SLAP! I almost lost my family ties. SLAP! I almost lost my job. SLAP! I stopped. This heartbreak was the Dharma blow I needed to stop the fabrications of mental ideas of what Zen is and the physical gymnastics of building a false Zen saint.

Our Dharma is not something we must do or achieve. It is not a set of forms or heroic gymnastics whether physical or mental it is a direct path which is immeasurable and immediate. The only merit we receive is the merit of residing in this immeasurable, immediate harmony. Free from thoughts Amitabha is bright and clear. It is our fundamental nature. It does not need the greed ridden wishes of a would-be saint. It is the Pure Land itself. We may need to be knocked up the side of the head to stop the fabrications, to stop the error of our actions.

Our errors are often along the lines of my experience. We try to fix things up, to make the unimportant self important and perfect, and solid. We hear the ideas of Zen and soon we cut the world with them. We dream and plan to get something like the "right" purpose or the "right" practice or the "right" master. The young Emperor-to-be wanted to get the "right" purpose. He was fortunate. He received the direct Dharma. It was a hot lesson, vibrating with the sting of a hand across his face beyond words and reason.

We must be sincere, harmonious and spontaneous. We must stop telling stories of how Zen ought to be or should be. We must stop varnishing the unimportant self with grueling practices. Life is arduous enough. Bowing before the Buddha may be our custom but the Dharma does not require nor does it demand strenuous performances of practice. The Dharma surpasses the small, acquiring unimportant self. When we taste the Dharma we cannot help shout out -


Humming Bird