The Gateless Barrier
Gutei Raises One Finger
Whenever Gutei was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Gutei’s attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As he ran from the room, screaming with pain, Gutei called to him. When he turned his head, Gutei raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.
When Gutei was about to die, he said to his assembled monks: “I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu. I’ve used it all my life and I’ve never used it up.” With this, he entered into his eternal rest.
There is a backstory to the case about how Gutei came to receive his one-finger Zen from Tenryu. Apparently, as a young monk he practiced for a long time as a hermit, sitting by himself alone in a hut, and for a long time he was deeply settled into his zazen and his solitary practice. But one day a nun on pilgrimage came to his hut and the nun -- her name translates as “True World” -- true world came knocking at his door. The nun stuck her head inside the hut and said to him, If you can say a single word of Zen, I’ll come in. Gutei was just dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say. He’d been sitting in this perfect silence day in and day out, but when the world came knocking, he didn’t know how to respond. So the nun left.
This left Gutei feeling very discombobulated. He realized that something was wrong. His sitting was deep and satisfying but he didn’t know how to answer the world’s call. He was about to give it all up, get up and leave and try to go back to the monastery or find a teacher to give him an answer. But before he left he had a dream. In the dream a deity said, Don’t go anywhere; the teacher will come to you. That’s an interesting dream. Certainly the world had just come to him. He didn’t know what to do with it, but apparently he was going to get a second chance. It’s basically right that whatever answer he needed was going to be found where he was, not by going somewhere else. And sure enough, after a certain amount of time, Tenriyu, a teacher on pilgrimage himself, came by the hut. This time Gutei quickly welcomed him in, sat him down, and told him the whole story of the nun and how distressed he was. Listening to the story, Tenriyu didn’t say a word. He simply raised one finger. And with that, Gutei was enlightened and received the one-finger Zen that he passed on to his monks all his life.
How do we understand the one finger? We might translate it as “Just this, Just this,” where what we do is bring together an experience of the absolute with whatever is happening in this moment, in the world, in this moment, in our life, in this moment. It’s just this. The finger, perhaps, is an embodiment, it’s a thing, it’s a bringing something forward as a gesture, as an action. It’s not staying inside. It’s not a simple focusing inward on a state of consciousness and identifying a particular state of consciousness with the absolute. But whatever it is, we identify it with something out in the world, an action, doing something, raising a finger. Now that’s not hard to understand or to experience to a certain point. Gutei’s young attendant probably felt he had some idea what the teacher meant by doing this, year in and year out. So when a visitor asked him, What does your Master teach? He thought he was conveying it perfectly naturally, showing him the one finger. Yet it’s the kind of understanding that is mostly just an imitation, mostly second-hand. I wouldn’t say a hundred percent. Most of us get it to a certain degree. But Gutei felt that it was shallow, inauthentic, so he cut off his finger.
Now we don’t have to believe that Gutei actually cut off the boy’s finger any more than we have to believe the Second Patriarch actually cut off his arm standing in the snow outside of Bodhidharma’s cave, but Zen does have a fondness for this kind of bloody imagery of self-sacrifice, killing the self. That imagery is common enough in Zen, that somehow you have to be driven to this extreme in order to have realization. But we can also think about it in terms of the true world coming to confront our zazen. When the world comes around, we may indeed lose a finger. We might lose an eye. We might get sick, might lose our livelihood. I remember when Joko, in Everyday Zen, is asked: What is the meaning of enlightenment? She says, Would it be OK with you if you lost your arms and legs? Well, here the boy just lost a finger. He got off easy.
But the point is not so much the content of the loss but -- Can you see just this in whatever’s happening? Can you see it even in the loss of your finger? Even in the thing that feels like pain and catastrophe? See, it's commonplace that people talk about meditation as “being just this moment” and we all agree and nod our heads, but actually we’re very fussy about the moment we want to be one with. We want our zazen to create or cultivate a certain kind of moment, and when we get to that moment, then we say -- This is it! I’ll be one with this moment. This is the absolute because it is calm and clear and I feel pretty good, so this is it. But what about when they cut off your finger? Is that still it? In one way or another, when Gutei called after the boy and then held up his finger, he was able to really see that one finger had no content. It was empty. It was Just this. Just this. It’s a simple lesson but not an easy lesson. We need to ask ourselves, How will we respond when the true world comes calling?