The keisaku began to be used at the end of the Tang Dynasty, Daruma Daishi didn't bring a keisaku to China of course, and there are no pictures recorded of the sixth patriarch carrying around a keisaku either. At this earlier time however, a practice called Ban wo Masubu became commonplace. People would do their training sitting across from each other with a stick lying between them. They would match their ki to not allow any gaps or lapses in energy and should one create such a gap the other would hit them with the stick. Following the time of the sixth patriarch however, we start to see the use of the fceisaku-proper recorded.
In the Solo sect where one is considered to already be the Buddha sitting, the striking of the keisaku is done from behind and only on the right shoulder. To hit the left shoulder would be to strike the kesa, hence hitting the Buddha's own kesa. Even though it is the Buddha sitting, Soto recognizes that one does get sleepy and lax.
In Rinzai we are struck on both shoulders, because Hakuin Zenji who gave us the rules we use today sat without kesa. We recognize that there is still a strong ego attachment that has to be taken care of, so to sweep that away, to scrape it away, we sit facing each other and use the keisaku. Thus the spirit of mutual development is the custom of our zendos. We use the strong ki of the zendo to help one another cut extraneous thinking energetically. It is the recognizing and acknowledgment of each others Buddha-nature that allows us to use the keisaku, not with a feeling of punishment, but to not allow anyone to be sitting in a half-hearted manner.
Most importantly, the keisaku means to guard and warn against a distracted mental state and to encourage energy for the practice. It has nothing to do with punishment.
Use of the Keisaku
Any blow from the keisaku should be felt just from its weight, not from being forced down hard into the shoulder- For this reason, its shape and design are very important. The keisaku should be 1 m in length. There should be separate keisakus for summer and winter because of the differences in clothing. In summer its use is lighter so the thickness of the tip should be 5mm, and for winter a tip thickness of 1cm is ideal. Oak is the best wood for its manufacture, as Oak is a hard wood that doesn't break easily. Cherry, Maple and Cedar wood are all too brittle to be used safely. The handle of the keisaku should be easy to grasp for people of both long and short grips.
In general when hitting with the keisaku, we must be careful. We should never hit on the bones, but on the soft part of the shoulder - one hands length in from the edge of the shoulder. As shugyosna sit on the floor in most western zendos, special core must be taken to avoid the blow moving downward, and hence damaging the backs of the internal organs and intestines. In the summer at Sogenji, we use two blows to each shoulder, four blows in winter Naturally, you may choose your own amount; some places use three blows all year round. All blows should be given quickly. Use the weight of the keisaku only to deliver the force, to dig in deeply is both painful and unnecessary. For this reason, a slapping motion is best - by the time the hit can be felt (he keisaku has already lifted off. People who are skillful will lift the keisaku high. This allows a deep, non-lasting hit that covers all the parts of the body. Do it quickly, continuously, one blow following the next. Do not use unnecessary pressure; the keisaku must never be pounded in with power. If we hit well we can really help others to awaken. If we do not hit well we allow a gap for egoistic thoughts to arise. Only practice can give one the confidence to lift high and hit accurately, whilst not hitting too hard, and yet hard enough to be felt.
To receive the keisaku, we must first gassho to remind us that this help is for our
benefit. It is also very important to not indulge in egoistic thoughts. To give rise to
feelings of anger towards the person hitting you is certainly not the way to accept the
keisaku. We remember that the keisaku is really to help each other in our sitting and
not relative to whether the monitor is skillful or not, though of course skillful is
better because it feels better. Because people who can't hit so well may hurt a little
bit, it is important to not bend over too far or to open the space under the arms. This
makes their job easier. As women have narrower backs than men it is especially
important for them to be sure the space under their arm is not open, thereby narrowing their backs further. When bending forward it is insulting to not turn the head
away from the area to be hit, it is also for the safety of our ears that we do this.
Form the number of people in a zendo decide the number of keisaku: 30+ people require two keisaku. One of these is designated the main Keisaku. Most One Drop Zendos will find only one keisaku necessary. The forms for two keisaku are similar to the single monitor. With two Keisaku the other will stand on the opposite side of the zendo, yet act in the same manner as the main monitor-When the bell is rung to initiate the period the person who is designated to carry the keisaku next, rises and bows, in gassho, at their tan. They tuck up their hakama or koromo - this is so these important items of clothing do not touch the floor should there be a need to bend or semi-squat - before walking in gassho to their keisaku. In front of the keisaku, usually kept at the shrine to Manjushri Bosatsu, the monitor bows, takes the keisaku, and bows again. Standing in front of the Jikijitsu the sitters postures, cushion line and the general energy of the zendo can be surveyed whilst waiting for everyone to settle. One lap of the zendo is then walked before returning to this place. This circuit is the best time to correct untidy postures.
The four corners of the zendo are the only places the Keisaku will stand. The elbows should be out straight and the keisaku held flat to the front with arms in a straight line. If there is writing on the stick it should be facing forward. It rests in the left hand and is held, just held, so it won't fall, by the right The elbows are in a line, the ki is in the tanden. Sometimes, people stand with their feet wide apart, as if they have to go to the bathroom. In fact, it should be with ones feet together, with room for just one foot between. Knees bent and hips firm, firmly rooted to the zendo. Those sitting can see this posture and the holding of the keisaku, they are aware of it. When walking in the zendo, silent footwear and mindful concentration are of the utmost importance. Straw sandals are used in Japanese monasteries, but these are weak to wet weather. Walking barefoot is preferable to noisy sandals. The keisaku is held over the right shoulder, horizontally, not resting on it as though we were carrying toilet buckets. By walking in this way we can watch people sitting through the space between the keisaku and our shoulder. When we stop before someone, we stop clearly and bow in gassho to them. When passing in front of the entrances to the zendo, the tip of the keisaku is respectfully dropped.
After the initial circuit of the zendo, the Jikijitsu will ring the bell three more times to officially start the period. From here the Keisaku will stand or walk, measuring each sitters breath, watching it carefully. People who are down and sleepy at this time can be seen, and when they are passed by they can be hit If the Keisaku is distracted, its bad for everyone's sitting. Whether standing or walking one should be in deep samadhi, neither standing aimlessly, nor restlessly moving about. One should feel the sight line of the Keisaku.
At Sogenji, especially with so many people from different countries and cultures, we do our zazen to develop a deep humility. When working on the razors edge, we can be really helped by the keisaku. For meditating in a spiritual health center we don't need it. When pushing to our very limits, the keisaku can help us to go beyond them and have this turning experience. To increase the energy of the zendo is the responsibility of the Keisaku. At this time, the keisaku is greatly needed, one who has experienced this knows full well how important this is.