Rinzai entered Obaku’s monastery as a young man and supposedly was a monk in the monastery for three years, simply following the forms of life there and never once went to see the teacher, yet he was considered an exemplary monk, and one imagines that he had reached a certain plateau of satisfaction in being able to fit in that life and find a certain level of satisfaction in it. Yet the story says that finally the head monk noticed he never went in to see the teacher and asked him, “Why not?” And Rinzai said, “I don’t know what I would ask him.” So the head monk suggested, “Why don’t you ask him what’s the ultimate meaning of Buddhism?” So Rinzai went in and dutifully asked his question and Obaku hit him. He didn’t understand the response but he was dutiful and he kept going back, three times asking the same question, three times getting hit. Finally he leaves and goes to this other Master, Daigu, who says to him, “Obaku is such an old grandmother.” What does that mean? It means he was so kindly, he was giving him directly the answer, giving him exactly what you need, like a grandmother would treat you with utmost kindness. But still you asked if you were at fault or not.
See, Rinzai responded to being hit the way most of us do. When something happens in our life that’s unexpected or painful, we ask, “What did I do?” “Did I do something wrong?” “Do I deserve this in some way?” “Should I have done something different? Asked something different? Did I ask the wrong question? Did I not ask in the right way? Would that have kept me from being hit?” We can say that our habitual way of facing what life throws at us or teaches us, is to ask in some way or another, “Am I doing it right or am I doing it wrong?” Before he went in to see Obaku the first time, one gets the impression Rinzai sort of coasted with a certain confident sense that he was doing things right. After encountering Obaku, he was shook up and figured in some way he was doing it wrong, but he didn’t understand what was wrong about it. But the real problem was that he really only had two ways of thinking about it. He was either doing it right or he was doing it wrong.
Does a dog have Buddha nature or not? Is the answer yes or no? He was stuck in this dichotomy of right or wrong, so Obaku tries to act in a way that cuts through that, and cuts through it in a way that also answers the question that Rinzai is asking. It’s a stock question, it’s the kind of thing monks are told, Go ask the teacher, or What’s the ultimate meaning of Buddhism? or Why did Bodhidharma come from the west? See what he says. See if you can understand his answer. The ultimate meaning of Buddhism is being given each time he’s being hit. The meaning is in that immediacy that comes through the whole notion of right or wrong or meaning, but Rinzai doesn’t recognize it. Three times he’s hit, three times he fails to see that his question has been answered.
Now, when we think of Rinzai and his teaching, we think of him hitting students and shouting, that he carried on Obaku’s tradition of trying to cut through all conceptualizations, all dualisms with a shout, with a hit. That’s how Rinzai comes down to us. Yet I think we forget Daigu. Rinzai was not enlightened by being hit by Obaku. His enlightenment came when Daigu said something. He framed it in language. He basically told Rinzai that you’re stuck in right or wrong, you’re not seeing you’ve already been given an answer, and it’s those words that enlightened Rinzai.