Gutei's finger and lifelong practice: Relying on the teacher that is always at hand Barry Magid June 6th 2015

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Book of Equanimity, Case 84 Gutei's one finger

Whenever he was asked a question Master Gutei raised one finger.

Book of Equanimity Case 84: Whenever he was asked a question, Master Gutei raised one finger.

That’s the whole case. The case also appears in this one line, one finger version in the Blue Cliff Record. However, it appears a third time in the Mumonkan in a longer version, Case Three in the Mumonkan. And the longer version is usually the one we hear first and we’re more familiar with, and in that one, having said that Gutei always answered every question by raising one finger, the story goes on to say that there was a young monk in the temple who was once asked by a visitor. What does your master teach? And the young boy raised one finger. When Gutei heard of that, he called the boy to him and cut off his finger with a knife. The boy ran screaming from the room, and just as he got to the door, Gutei called his name, and the boy turned around. Gutei raised one finger and the boy was enlightened.

It’s interesting in a certain way to compare the two versions as they represent, in a sense, the Book of Equanimity versus the Mumonkan, a Soto telling the story versus a Rinzai telling the story. The Mumonkan were focussed on the dramatic moment of the enlightenment experience and how in order to have that come about, something has to be cut off, even violently cut off in order for there to be realization, some kind of picture of cutting off of ego, so very much in the Rinzai spirit.

In the Book of Equanimity we have a different kind of story in which it simply says, whenever he was asked a question, Master Gutei raised one finger. What was emphasized there was a lifetime of on-going practice, something that he totally relied on in every possible circumstance. It was completely fulfilling an expression of whatever is happening, there is one thing. In some of the commentaries you get a little background story about Gutei before he himself was enlightened and how he got his one-finger Zen.

It was said that for years he sat perhaps alone in a small temple and one day a nun showed up, came to the doorway and said, If you can say a word of Zen I’ll come in. And Gutei was tongue-tied so she left. And this left him quite humiliated, and he resolved that whatever he was doing sitting there in the temple obviously wasn’t getting him anywhere, he’d better go on pilgrimage and find himself a master, and that night he had a dream in which a voice said to him, don’t go anywhere. Stay here. A great master will come to you and resolve all your problems. Sure enough, the next day, old Master Tenryu comes along and he comes into the temple and Gutei tells him the whole story and how he felt totally baffled when the nun asked him to say a word of Zen. Tenryu heard the whole thing and raised one finger, at which Gutei was enlightened.

So the first question of course is, if the nun had stopped at your door and asked you to say a word of Zen so she could come in, what would you say? One could safely imagine Gutei being rather socially phobic, just unable to speak, and Tenryu just gave him the perfect out. He never has to speak again. Now no matter what anybody asks him, he holds up one finger. He doesn’t have to learn to talk. We’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt and say there was a deep realization in what Tenryu did.

So what is the meaning of one finger? I think however you look at it, even traditionally, the important thing is to not think that one finger is the symbol of something, certainly not a symbol of oneness. Gutei or Tenryu could have held up two fingers, or three fingers, could have held up a flower. It doesn’t matter that it was one finger particularly. What we have is the presentation of something immediate. That one finger is the thing that Kant told us we could never know, the thing in itself. Kant said there’s the world that we know and there’s the world as it is before we know it, the thing before we wrap it in our concepts, before we use any idea, concept, construct, to understand it. And so by definition the thing in itself cannot be understood or known because if you know it you’ve wrapped it in concept.

I’m afraid Professor Kant would have been slapped silly by Rinzai. And Gutei might have poked him in the eye with his finger. In Zen, the presentation of immediacy is the answer to Kant and is the “just this,” the thing in itself, so the finger that Gutei holds up, if it’s going to be the thing in itself, can’t have any meaning attached to it. It’s not a symbol of something else, it’s just that. It doesn’t matter what it is. So in a sense the one finger can be tricky, can make you think it’s a symbol of something, but it’s just what it is, just this immediate presentation, just this.

Now if we turn to the Soto version of this story, which is simply the one line, then whatever he was asked, he raised one finger. We’re not interested in the moment of cutting through or off or realizing or anything else. What, then, are we saying? How does this carry itself forward for the rest of your life? And when Gutei was on his deathbed, he said, I’ve used Tenryu’s one-finger Zen my whole life and never exhausted it. And so saying, he raised one finger and he died. He relied on one finger the way a Christian relies on God or Christ, and I think that’s part of what we want to understand about that, not relying on God as a savior or a control but as a presence that never leaves, the way in which you can, if you’re a believer, feel that you’re never alone because God is always with you. Whatever is happening, there’s something that you know is present, that gives it meaning, that gives it something.

So we’re trying to have a sense of what it is that Gutei felt as he relied on this one-finger Zen. I think it’s analogous to what Joko talks about, “Each moment life as it is, the only teacher.” Instead of saying the only teacher, in this case we might say the ever-present teacher, the teacher that will never leave you, the teacher that is always there, moment after moment after moment, so if you’re afraid of being alone, if you’re afraid of being lost and not knowing what to say, that teacher’s always right at hand, in Gutei’s case, literally. The teacher that never leaves you. How do we understand that?

We’ve been talking about posture today, and there’s a certain sense in which the upright posture of Zen is like Gutei’s one finger. There’s a Soto teacher I saw quoted recently who said, Zazen is posture and nothing else. Zazen is what is happening in your body, not what is happening in your mind. Not that there’s a difference between the two, but the point is that to put your body in this posture, in this alignment, is equivalent to holding up the one finger. You are then perfectly present, nothing is missing. It will take you through any circumstance. You can rely on it totally, anytime, anywhere. If you do this zazen, maintain this posture, it’s like holding up Gutei’s finger. You can’t miss. It’s it. And the posture is not symbolizing anything, it’s not a means to an end, it’s the thing itself. This is it! And that is much more the Soto sense of carrying forward practice, carrying forward Gutei’s finger. It’s how do we use the posture or the performance of zazen the way Gutei used his finger? When essentially life confronts us with anything, we respond with our zazen It is a perfect and complete response to whatever is happening because it means being non-separate from whatever is happening. You’re being one with your teacher, life, when you’re sitting in zazen, whatever that teacher is offering you.

I think when we start out, we’re much more preoccupied with the Mumonkan version of this story because we want something big and dramatic to happen. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but as we get older, the issue is much more: How do you carry this forward day after day after day? The point is not to have some big satori over and over and over again. Then what? How does that manifest itself day after day?

One answer is to sit straight. Be upright. Just this.

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