Rinzai was born in Caozhou, and his master was Obaku, who was born in Fujian, in the Tang dynasty. Obaku taught wisdom with his fists.
Once, Obaku happened to be in the chapel prostrating himself before an image of Buddha. The Emperor, who thought he had learnt the lesson of Zen idealism, said to him: “There is nothing to be got from Buddha, nothing from the Church, nothing from Man; for nothing exists. What do you mean by praying at your age? ”
Obaku answered him: “I seek nothing of Buddha, the Church, or of Man. I am in the habit of praying.” The Emperor said: “What do you do it for?” Obaku lost patience and struck him with his fist. “You rude fellow,” cried the Emperor. “Since nothing exists, what difference does it make to you whether I am rude or polite?” and Obaku struck him again. The Emperor retreated hastily.
Once the novice Rinzai came to Obaku and asked him what was the fundamental idea of Buddhism, Obaku hit him three times with his stick. Rinzai fled and presently met the monk Daigu.
Daigu: Where do you come from?
Rinzai: From Obaku.
Daigu: And what stanza did he lecture upon?
Rinzai: I asked him thrice what the fundamental doctrine of Buddhism was and each time he hit me with his stick. Please tell me if I did something I ought not to have done?
Daigu : You go to Obaku and torture him by your questions, and then ask if you have done wrong !
At that moment Rinzai had a Great Enlightenment.
Rinzai inherits his master’s mantle and alms bowl, and he also uses striking to teach his disciples.
Once Rinzai saw a monk coming and held his fly whisk straight up. The monk made a low bow, whereupon the Master struck him a blow. The Master saw another monk coming and again held his fly whisk straight up. The monk paid no attention, whereupon the Master struck him a blow as well.
Rinzai carry his master’s teaching method a step further, he not only uses striking but also roaring to his students, in order to bring about moment of enlightenment. He abuses Buddha and scolds all Patriarchs of Zen. He said Buddha is filth in the latrine, and Bodhi (knowledge or enlightenment) and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys.
He deliberately destructs all obstacles on the way to enlightenment, even include Buddha himself. He said: “Followers of the Way, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma never be misled by others. Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an Arhat, kill the Arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, and will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.”
Rinzai often shouted meaningless syllables at his disciples; roared like a lion or bellowed like a bull. This “howling” became a regular part of Zen practice, although nowadays, people may think all Zen masters are bullies.
Upon his deathbed Rinzai summoned his disciples round him and asked which of them felt capable of carrying on his work. Sansho volunteered to do so. “How will you tell people what was Rinzai’s teaching? ” asked Rinzai. Sansho threw out his chest and roared in a manner which he thought would gratify the master. But Rinzai groaned and cried out, “To think that such a blind donkey should undertake to hand on my teaching!”