Impersonal Self in Action: “Thwack Thwack!”

Christina Burawa shares Impersonal Self in Action: “Thwack Thwack!” in The Main Central Jin Shin Jyutsu Newsletter, issue Number 62, Fall 2008:


What would it be like to approach a Safety Energy Lock not through your palm or the tips of your fingers, but from the end of a long stick?

At Rinzai Zen Buddhist sesshins, or week-long retreats, students practice zazen (sitting and breathing meditation) for up to twelve hours each day. The hours are broken into twenty-five minute periods, with walking meditation, or at least a release from zazen posture, in between. Still, the physical challenge is considerable, and intentionally so. A minimum of sleep combined with physical rigor are meant to break down the students’ habitual defenses, to help the students drop their fixed, seemingly separate, “I am” selves —- to realize Impersonal Self. Impersonal Self is defined by Mary in Self-Help Book II:

IS – Impersonal Self

What is IS?

Unload all ATTITUDES

A few times each day, each student goes before the Roshi (venerable elder/teacher) for sanzen, an encounter in which the student will attempt to manifest some understanding of the nature of reality. Silence is the rule at Zen retreats. However, were one to go looking for pointers on how to approach sanzen, one could find no better advice than Mary’s words, found alongside the description of the Number 11 “SAFETY” Energy Lock in Self-Help Book II: “Be the dropping of your shoulders – unload, receive and tune into the rhythm of the cosmos where there is no-thing.” No thing. No separate self. No “other”. Can you go before the Roshi with no self and no other?

Before sanzen periods, a monk or nun will slowly and deliberately patrol the meditation hall with a stick called a kesaku* held balanced on their shoulder. They will stop in front of male students whose sitting posture has stiffened, often resulting in a pulling up of the shoulders, a tightening of the 11s. It is as if the student’s resisting body is saying: “No! I don’t want to let go of my baggage!” The stiff student is rapped on his shoulder with the kesaku, indicating that he is to lean forward and to one side in order to receive a double strike of the stick (Thwack Thwack!) on each shoulder. (Female students must ask for the kesaku by bowing if they want it.) The kesaku strikes the shoulders at the 11s, helping the shoulders to release and hopefully helping the student to let go of some of their baggage.

The student is challenged to release some baggage, some attitude, in the act  of simply facing the one who holds the kesaku. Can the student encounter the stick and the person who carries it with no fear? No perception of threat or punishment? Equally challenging, or perhaps more so, can the monk wield the stick with no-self?

The “Thwack Thwack!” suffuses the silent meditation hall. Each time the kesaku is used, one can hear where the striker “is at”. You can hear hesitation. You can hear trying-to force. You can hear it when the kesaku properly meets its target.

A monk wielding a kesaku, a Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner being the jumper cable, each one sensing their way to the heart of the Safety Energy Lock. When we are able to drop our thinking minds and our attitudes, when we act, or rather, when we BE from the standpoint of Impersonal Self, we have an increased capacity to tune into the rhythm of the cosmos, to allow that rhythm to express itself through us. And that is when a stick may become a helper, an instrument of kindness.

Thwack Thwack!

Thanks and gassho to Matthias Roth for being a catalyst to this essay.

*A kesaku is a flat, flexible, tapered stick, about a yard long and traditionally made of oak.

Thank you, Christina.

Thank you, Mary.

Thank you, David.

Gassho, Namaste, Blessings

All issues of The Main Central Jin Shin Jyutsu Newsletter are available at


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