Rinzai was noted for his many unusual teachings. He would hit and shout at his students in an effort to break their conceptual thinking. Amazingly it worked. Sometimes I hear Harada use a shout while he is giving private interviews. He doesn't shout anything at them, he just lets go with a bellow. It just might be enough to shake the student from their last bit of thinking and thereby enter deep samadhi. The same is true of being hit. In a Zen meditation hall there is often a person walking the isles of meditators carrying a stick. Most people think this stick is just to help them stay awake during the long hours of meditation but every once in a while I will ask to be hit ( You get hit on the shoulder muscles and it is more of a shock then painful.) when I want that last bit of thinking knocked out of my head. Sometimes it works and some times it doesn't work.
One of the more unusual teachings Rinzai came up with was that of the Guest and Host. I had thought that this was an esoteric teaching about the relationship between the Absolute and the Individual, the Absolute being the Host and the Individual being the Guest, or maybe the other way around depending on the situation. Take tennis for example, when I gather all my concentration and then let go with a serve and rush the net for the next shot, all my years of practice take over and that internal I has no power over the unfolding event. In some sense we might say the Universe, the Absolute, is in charge and the "I" is along for the ride and is the Guest in this situation, and the Absolute is the Host. On the other hand when "I" make decisions at work about how things may be done then we might say that "I" am the host and yet I understand that the Absolute is always present functioning through everything, it takes the role of guest in my inner world. And yet, (there is always that yet because whenever we enter the realm of duality and language there is always another side to look at) the Absolute is always in charge, the individual is an illusion. Thus the Absolute is always the Host. From the perspective of individual psychology in this practice, as realization deepens more and more the "I" becomes identified with the Absolute. Even individual choice becomes the Absolute's choice.
Harada's essay had a completely different interpretation in which the teaching of Guest and Host is about social interaction. Rinzai in his teaching of Guest and Host asks us to recognize when we are the Host and when we are the Guest and to understand that this is constantly changing according to the situation.
Here in the USA we want to see ourselves as equals in our social interactions, but in the class structured society of ancient China and Japan there was this understanding that none of us are quite equals in our social interactions. In most interactions there is someone in charge and who we might call the Host and the other or others who are following who we might call the Guest or Guests. Or if someone enters our house we are the Host and if we enter someone else's house we are the Guest. Using the words Host and Guest tells us that these two roles are not about who is more important. They are both are of equal importance but that the roles have behavioral expectations. In Zen terms this is about acting appropriately.
For most of us we are usually acting according to our concept of self identity our ego. Some people are always trying to take power in all situations, others cede power because it makes them feel secure. And then we have all sorts of ideas about how things are suppose to be. I was at sesshin and we were all sitting waiting for the Harada Roshi to come and give a teshio (formal talk). We sit in these nice neat rows and I was sitting next to an ordained nun. It was a hot day and I chose to not ware my robes because they are hot being made from wool, instead I was neatly dressed in a black shirt and pants which I thought was appropriate,. The nun did not think it was appropriate. She told me I should put on my robes. When I told her my robes were wool and that I would be very hot and uncomfortable warring them she told me "that is just the point" as though the practice of Zen was about learning to put up with being uncomfortable. I didn't want to argue so I got up ran back to where my robes were hanging, put them on and ran back to my seat, just before Harada arrived. I was dripping sweat by the time I arrived back in the zendo.
I tell this story not only because I think the nun acted from an idea she had of what was appropriate and the idea that she understood Zen better then this layman who was sitting next to her, but also because I didn't know how to respond and sat for a while debating with myself over what should I do. I think both of us were caught by our egos in this exchange.
The teaching of Guest and Host is about how you act without ego no matter whether the situation seems to give you power or not give you power. As a Host you should honor and respect your guests and the Guest should honor and respect the host. These are different roles created by the situation. Society may place one above the other, knowledge, our jobs, personal power, may place one above the other but in essence we are all equal. It is exactly this recognition which we Zen Buddhists like to believe Shakyamuni announced upon his enlightenment, "All Beings have this same wisdom which I have just been awakened to."
There is this image that is often used in Zen training. As we proceed
in life most of us humans have lots of sharp points which stick out, get caught on things, and painfully slash and poke others. These sharp points are all those ideas we have of desires and attachments, anger and confusion. Zen practice slowly grinds away at all these sharp points until we become like a smooth round ball which roles through life not getting caught or painfully impaling anyone.
The ideal Zen practitioner proceeds through life without all those thoughts of desires, attachments, anger, and confusion. Not that the ideal Zen practitioner is completely without thought but that he/she lives in the present and acts without the intermediary of a whole lot of thought. This does not mean that he/she acts stupidly but rather lets their deeper intelligence and compassion, which we all have, react to the situation. I go back to the tennis analogy. You just can't hit a tennis ball very well if you are constantly thinking about how and where to hit the ball. You play much better if you trust your skills honed through time and practice and drop all the extra thought and just concentrate on being completely present as you move and hit the ball. Some people say that Zen practice hones our intuition and allows us to act spontaneously but I think it is better described as allowing us to see clearly and act through that clarity.