Shouts, Hits and Awareness


How do Zen masters point students to awareness without using words? In Simple Zen: A Guide to Living Moment by Moment, C. Alexander Simpkins PH.D. and Annellen Simpkins PH.D. write how Zen masters point students to awareness through hits and shouts.

A Nonconceptual Experience
Alexander and Annellen write:

“Chinese Zen masters Ma-tsu and Lin-chi often resorted to shouting or hitting in response to students’ questions. This created tension in the students since they never knew when they might receive a smack from the master. The purpose, however, was not to terrorize the students but to give them a direct, wordless, nonconceptual experience.”

The Unborn Mind
Alexander and Annellen write:


The Student and the Master
Alexander and Anellen write about a typical exchange between Lin-chi and a student”


A Means to an End
Alexander and Annellen write:


Key Take Aways
Well, that’s different. I wonder if that’s where the expression “knocking some sense into you” comes from. If nothing else, this got me to think. Here’s some thoughts:

  • Do the hits help more than they hurt? Does a Zen student consider the experience positive or negative? Is the stick seen associated with great awareness? Do students become fearful of asking questions? Obviously it will vary by individual, but I’m curious about the cultural view.
  • Does it mean, look to the answer within? If the answer to the question is a hit or a shout, does that mean find the answer within or that the answer is already there and you just need to stop thinking and just experience it?
  • Is the shock value meant to amplify the experience? I know that our greatest “ah ha” moments create a physiological response.
  • Is the wordless approach meant to bypass our filters? Do our words get in the way? We all have filters concepts, beliefs and assumptions — it’s how we filter the world. What’s your reaction in the moment, without these filters? Is this technique really for tapping into your “Unborn Mind.” I try to tap into intuition at work by asking myself and others, “what’s your gut say?” It’s a practice I learned from my manager. It seems particularly effective at both helping tease out other perspectives and concerns, or finding motivation to find a way to make something happen.
  • Is it a way to reach non-linear conclusions? Sometimes in the morning, I just wake up with answers. It’s not linear. It’s as if I stopped being blind and the answer was there all along.
  • Is it a way to create referential experience? Just giving somebody an answer doesn’t always stick. Socrates used questions. Does a Zen master’s stick help encourage similar reflection?

My Related Posts



“Like any teaching device, koans, shouting, and strikes with the stick are not the awareness itself. They are aids to engage students toward awakening. Words can point to the experience, like the finger pointing to the moon, but they cannot become the experience itself. When you meditate on koans, do not mistake the means for the end … or the beginning. Employ them as a useful vehicle to help you get to the other shore. “



“The Master said to a nun, ‘Well come, or ill come?’
The nun gave a shout.
The Master picked up his stick and said, ‘Speak then, speak!’
The nun shouted once more.
The Master struck her. (Watson 1993, 99)



“If you think about a time you were surprised by something – for example, a ball thrown at you unexpectedly – you probably extended your arms and caught it without thinking. Bankei referred to this as the Unborn Mind. This is the nonrational awareness that Zen helps us awaken. Frequently, students who were
struck by Lin-chi’s stick discovered sudden enlightenment.”