Attainment too is emptiness
Rinzai Zen emphasizes the importance of kensho or satori, that is, a sudden awakening after an intense and often bitter spiritual struggle. According to Hakuin, father of the Rinzai tradition that has survived today, kensho is the touchstone of authentic Zen practice.
Rinzai Zen uses koans that are designed to bring doubt to such a pitch that one ultimately breaks out of the cocoon of dualistic understanding. The process can be very painful. One could even call it “extreme meditation”. Shibayama puts it this way:
One has to be prepared to risk his life and, even then, satori may not be accessible. Zen has been described since the olden days as the way for only a handful of geniuses.(Hakuin's tough love attitude has been passed on to his Rinzai heirs, and not without his unfortunate elitism.)
A Flower Does not Talk
Looking beyond the fact that Rinzai poses as superior to other practices that lack its machismo, there are other questions one might raise about its placing so much emphasis on attaining kensho, the most salient being: how can kensho simultaneously be an awakening and an experience that can purportedly be authenticated by a master as “shallow” or “deep”? Is awakening measurable and, if so, where is one mind then?
But also, although koans are interesting practice tools, awakening is not exclusively about transcending conceptual understanding. Suffering is everywhere ready to be transcended in many different guises. Is it necessary to tease out doubt so ruthlessly with koans?
Finally, does awakening need to come as a shock to “revive us from the abyss of unconsciousness” (Shibayama) or is living awake a gradual unfolding of what we already are?