Many Zen pupils were studying meditation under the Zen master Sengai. One of them used to arise at night, climb over the temple wall, and go to town on a pleasure jaunt.
Sengai, inspecting the dormitory quarters, found this pupil missing one night and also discovered the high stool he had used to scale the well. Sengai removed the stool and stood there in its place.
When the wanderer returned, not knowing that Sengai was the stool, he put his feet on the master’s head and jumped down into the grounds. Discovering what he had done, he was aghast.
Sengai said: “It is very chilly in the early morning. Do be careful not to catch a cold yourself.”
The pupil never went out at night again.
I think of this kōan anytime I hear about managers punishing their employees too severely in the workplace, or laws where the punishments far exceed the crimes. Harsh punishments rarely teach the lessons they’re intended to. They instead encourage the punished to find ways to avoid being caught in the future. After all, from their perspective what they did may not even be wrong. Sengai’s method however forced his pupil to think about his actions, arguably the very essence of Zen, without disciplining him at all. And as the last line of the story tells us, it’s a far more effective method.