As the founder of the Linji school (in Japanese, Rinzai), Linji plays a key role in the history of Zen. The story of Linji’s enlightenment under Huangbo—related in the lamp records—is a Chan classic.
Linji's enlightenment: three years to sudden insight
arrived at the monastery of Huangbo already a fully ordained monk,
but his learning was traditional and his personality that of a
timorous fledgling monk. For three years he dutifully attended
the master's sermons and practiced all the observances of the mountain
community, but his advancement was minimal.
Finally the head disciple suggested that he visit Huangbo for an interview to try to gain insight.
The young man obligingly went in to see the master and asked him the standard opener "What is the real meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?"
Huangbo's wordless response was to lay him low with a' blow of his stick.
Linji scurried away in perplexity and related the story to the head disciple, who encouraged him to return, which he did twice more. But each time he received the same harsh reception.
He was finally so demoralized that he announced plans to leave the monastery and seek enlightenment elsewhere. The head monk related this to Huangbo together with the opinion that this young novice showed significant promise.
So when Linji came to bid Huangbo farewell, the master sympathetically directed him to the monastery of a kindly nearby teacher, the master Dayu (Ta-yu).
Perhaps it was all planned, but when Linji arrived at the second monastery and related his unhappy treatment at the hands of Huangbo the master Dayu listened patiently.
Dayu: "Huangbo treated you with great compassion. He merely wanted to relieve your distress."
Linji suddenly understood that Huangbo was transmitting the wordless insight to him, the understanding that Chan ties not in the words produced in the abbot's room but rather in the realization of his intuitive mind. It suddenly was all so obvious that the young monk could not contain his joy.
Linji: "So Huangbo's Buddhism is actually very simple; there's nothing to it after all!"
This struck the master Dayu as either impertinent or a significant breakthrough. Grabbing Linji he yelled: "You scamp! A minute ago you complained that Huangbo's teaching was impossible to understand and now you say there is nothing to it. What is it you just realized? Speak quickly!" (Only in a spontaneous utterance is there real, uncalculated evidence of enlightenment.)
Linji's answer was to pummel Dayu in the ribs three times with his fist.
The older master then discharged him (or perhaps kicked him out} with the observation: "Your teacher is Huangbo, and therefore you do not concern me."
Huangbo greeted him with the puzzled observation: "Haven't you come back a bit too soon? You only just left."
In response Linji bowed: "It's because you've been so kind to me that I came back so quickly," and he proceeded to relate the story of his sudden enlightenment.
Huangbo: "What a big mouth that old man has. The next time I see him I'll give him a taste of my staff."
Linji yelling: "Why wait! I can give it to you now," and proceeded to slap the master's face.
Huangbo, startled: "This crazy monk is plucking the tiger's whiskers."
Whereupon Linji emitted the first of what was to be a lifetime of shouts, affirming his wordless insight.
The satisfied Huangbo called an attendant: "Take this crazy fellow to the assembly hall."
This is a perfect example of "sudden" enlightenment that took many years to achieve. Linji had been a plodding; earnest young man until the moment of his "sudden" enlightenment, which occurred over a seemingly uncalculated remark by a teacher not even his own master. In fact, all Huangbo had done was to assail him with a staff. But Linji was transformed suddenly from a milksop to the founder of a school. Still, Linji's "sudden" enlightenment had come about at the end of a highly disciplined period of preparation.