There is nothing in Yoel Hoffman’s collection of Joshu teachings that gives us any indication of how Zhaozhou might have dealt either with his own spontaneous anger (of which there are numerous examples) or how he would have helped others to temper theirs.
If anything, Zhaozhou often acts as the catalyst, or perhaps as a shit-stirrer, in terms of provoking frustration and distemper in those who seek the equanimity and surety that they believe his sagacious teachings might give them – only to find that in their request for him to make them holy, all Zhaozhou has done is dump “a mountain of shit” on their clean, plain aspirations, challenging them to get to work.
So, a visitor to the monastery informs Zhaozhou of the distance he has travelled in ordered to have access to his teachings. Zhaozhou comes back with: ““You have just entered the gate. Well then, let me spit in your face.”
Or one of his student ask: “What is Zen?” He replies: “Today it is cloudy, so I will not answer.”
Another picks up on his phrase, used in a teaching sermon (“in the realm of understanding”), about how the choice offered to us by different words might tie the mind in spurious knots, hindering our access to “the Way”. Zhaozhou answers the initial query, but when the monk persists in his cross-questioning, he dismisses him with: ““It is only because you asked that I answered. Now go away.”
Again and again Zhaozhou communicates the message to his monks, later put forward by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, that “La théorie, c’est bon, mais ça n’empêche pas d’exister.” (Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing.)
If the central teaching of Zhaozhou rests on the spur to dispense with too much theorising when it comes to human experience, where does that leave us with the experience we might file under dukkha (discomfort and suffering), especially in the pain generated through and as a side-effect of anger?
One way of reading these tales is to see a man providing his students, his commensurable sons and daughters, with a kind of psycho-spiritual obstacle course to test the very mettle that Zen training system is seeking to instil in them. For between these verbal showdowns, a great deal of formal and implicit teaching would no doubt have occured on how they might work with hurtful emotions. Or maybe not. Who can say.
If they had occurred, these hands-on teachings, were probably not as colourful as spiritual-punchline laden zen stories, and so have not reached our ears. Perhaps, like the koans themselves, they also embodied, non-cognitive practices which are difficult to relate linguistically. Even though modern psychology is now using these very same practices a thousand years down the line in order to keep the bull, the Hulk, the angry pet-owner or father, from smashing every item in the china shop of his relationships and attachments.