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Katsu (Zen)

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Katsu (Japanese: ; Cantonese: Loudspeaker hot3 , Pinyin: , Wade-Giles: ho) is a type of shout that is used in Chán and Zen Buddhism to give expression to one's own enlightened state (Japanese: satori) and/or to induce another person to move beyond rationality and logic and, potentially, achieve an initial enlightenment experience.[1] The shout is also sometimes used in the East Asian martial arts for a variety of purposes; in this context, katsu is very similar to the shout kiai.[2]

The word in Chinese means literally "to yell"[3] or "to shout",[4] and in Japanese has also developed the meaning of "to browbeat",[5] "to scold", and "hoarse".[6] However, in the context of Chan and Zen practice, the word is not generally used in its literal meaning(s), but rather—much as with the martial arts shout of kiai—as fundamentally a means of focusing energy. When the Chan and Zen practice of the katsu first emerged in Jiangxi province in the south of Tang dynasty China in the 8th century CE, the word was pronounced roughly as /xat/,[7] a pronunciation that is largely preserved[8] in the Japanese on'yomi ("Sino-Japanese") reading of the character as [katsɯ] or [katsɯ̥], as well as in Cantonese and Minnan Chinese.[9]

The katsu shout, insofar as it represents a kind of verbal harshness and even violence, can be considered a part of the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine of "skill-in-means" (Sanskrit: upāya-kauśalya), which essentially teaches that even an action or practice which seems to violate Buddhist moral guidelines—in this case, the Noble Eightfold Path's injunction against "abusive speech"[10]—is permissible, and even desirable, so long as it is done with the aim of ultimately putting an end to suffering and introducing others to the dharma, or teachings of Buddhism.

The most celebrated and frequent practitioner of the katsu was the Chinese master Línjì Yìxuán (?–866), and many examples of his use of the shout can be found in the Línjì-lù (臨済錄; Japanese: Rinzai-roku), or Record of Linji, which is a collection of Linji's actions and lectures:

A monk asked, "What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?" The Master gave a shout.[11] The monk bowed low. The Master said, "This fine monk is the kind who's worth talking to!"[12]

Linji had learned the use of the katsu—as well as other somewhat antinomian methods such as striking disciples with a stick or a fly whisk[13]—from his own master, Huángbò Xīyùn, who had learned it from Bǎizhàng Huáihǎi, who had learned it from one of the preeminent Chan masters of Tang dynasty China, Mǎzǔ Dàoyī (709–788).[14] Linji greatly developed and used the katsu technique, and in one of his lectures—often termed as "Linji's Four Shouts"[15]—he distinguished four different categories of katsu:

The Master said to a monk, "At times my shout is like the precious sword of the Diamond King. At times my shout is like a golden-haired lion crouching on the ground. At times my shout is like the search pole and the shadow grass. At times my shout doesn't work like a shout at all. Do you understand?" The monk started to answer, whereupon the Master gave a shout.[16]

The school of Chan that largely emerged from Linji's methods was, after the Japanese pronunciation of Linji's name, the Rinzai school, which flourished in Japan—with strong samurai support—beginning in the 13th century. The Rinzai school continued the practice of the katsu, as can be seen through the examples of the death poems of certain Rinzai priests:

On the death bed—Katsu!
Let he who has eyes see!
Katsu! Katsu! Katsu!
And once again, Katsu!
—Yōsō Sōi (養叟宗頤, 1379–1458)
For over sixty years
I often cried Katsu! to no avail.
And now, while dying,
Once more to cry Katsu!
Won't change a thing.[18]
—Kokei Sōchin (古溪宗陳, 1515–1597)

The use of the katsu shout continues in both Chinese and Japanese Rinzai monasteries,[19] and indeed has become something of a standardized practice in many different situations therein.[20]


  1. Dōgen 190
  2. Dublin University Shotokan Karate Club
  3. Ibid.
  4. Character Search Results
  5. Japanese Kanji Dictionary
  6. Kanji Search - Search %E5%96%9D results
  8. Watson xiv
  9. 台文/華文線頂辭典
  10. Thanissaro 96
  11. Here, the phrase translated as "gave a shout" is a reference to Linji's shouting the katsu.
  12. Watson, 9
  13. Ibid. 15
  14. Dumoulin 2005, 180
  15. Watson, 99
  16. Ibid., 98–99
  17. Hoffmann 128
  18. Ibid. 107
  19. Dumoulin 1979, 62
  20. Payne, 24


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