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Katsu (Japanese: 喝; Cantonese: hot3 (help·info), Pinyin: hè, Wade-Giles: ho) is a shout that is described in Chán and Zen Buddhism encounter-stories, to expose the enlightened state (Japanese: satori)of the Zen-master, and/or to induce initial enlightenment experience in a student. 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.
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/, a pronunciation that is largely preserved in the Japanese on'yomi ("Sino-Japanese") reading of the character as [katsɯ̥], as well as in Cantonese and Minnan Chinese.
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"—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, the collection of Linji's actions and lectures:
The use of the katsu stands in a tradition of antinomian methods, such as striking disciples with a stick or a fly whisk, which developed within the Mǎzǔ Dàoyī (709–788) lineage. Linji greatly developed and used the katsu technique. In one of his lectures, often termed as "Linji's Four Shouts" 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.
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.
—Kokei Sōchin (古溪宗陳, 1515–1597)
In Japanese history (and other countries as well), elderly martial artists who practiced the arts all their lives were honored and respected by their students and the population of the towns they live in. In particular for two distinct reasons. The obvious one was their ability to hurt and kill people. The other fact not well known to most people was these elderly martial artists' abilities to heal people. Martial artists placed (some still do) much value on healing and resuscitation arts as they did on their fighting techniques. These arts are known as "Katsu of Kappo", gave the practitioner the ability to restart someone's heart, resume breathing or treat other injuries. These tactics were a natural outgrowth of martial arts practices where the need to reverse techniques was commonplace.
Gary Kwack, The Martial Art/Healing Connection,April/May 2003 Massage and BodyWork