Friday, April 23, 2010

Gutei's Finger

There's a koan I've been struggling with - and I'm struggling with it not for the first time, either! I do some koan exchange, so I know I'm not the only person who finds this one rather challenging. I'd thus be grateful if as many of you as possible could suggest what you think we're supposed to learn from the koan of Gutei's finger. Here's the koan:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

When Gutei was about to pass from this world he gathered his monks around him. `I attained my finger-Zen,' he said, `from my teacher Tenryu, and in my whole life I could not exhaust it.' Then he passed away.

So please tell me - what's that all about?


  1. This appears to be a later Japanese interpretation of this Chinese Kung-an, it has been changed to reflect on Gutei’s teaching, rather than the boy’s awakening. I believe the second paragraph should read more like:

    Gutei heard about the boy's mischief, seized him and cut off his finger. The boy ran away crying. Gutei called out to stop him. When the boy turned and looked back, Gutei raised up his finger. Reflexively the boy responded by attempting to raise his own (cut off) finger… In that instant the boy was enlightened.

    The third paragraph about Gutei’s passing is another story all together and (in my opinion) should be discarded. Maybe this makes the koan more manageable.

  2. Thanks, Miles. I much prefer this original Chinese version you've provided. The fact that it focusses (sorry - English spelling!) on the boy rather thanon that rather odd chap Gutei suddenly makes the lack of a finger the central point.

    It is the boy that is enlightened - Gutei, perhaps, still needs a fair amount of self to drop away.

    Dojin, do you think I'm getting this now?

  3. Focussing is written with two "s" in British English? Wow, so many years with American teachers have made me forget the original :P

    Anyway, the koan. I'm no expert, but I read something in Brad Warner's blog about this, which said that this koan is about you expressing the teachings in your own way, and not copying other people's versions. Gutei had his way of teaching, but the kid had to find his own. If you go around imitating this or that master, you'll never find true enlightenment. That's why the Buddha said he only pointed the way, and that it was our task to walk it.

    I suppose this koan may have many interpretations (as the suttas in the Tipitaka, katas in karate, or songs in music), but I find this one very helpful. However, I think the point of koan is to struggle with them on your own, right? Guess I cheated (and, by copying, Gutei cut my finger :P).

    But I think the koan implied Gutei was enlightened - how could he teach the kid otherwise?

  4. Thanks for the explanation, Pablo. Now you've clarified it, I can see Gutei's point, but in his position I still feel I maybe would have got some string and just tied down the lad's finger for a while, until he'd got the point!

    I find your second idea interesting - that Gutei must have been enlightened to teach the boy. I've just learnt from you. Does this mean you're enlightened?

  5. I have doubts about this. Sometimes I want to save the world and be a bodhisattha, sometimes I think: "If I haven't saved myself, who can I save?". I haven't found the end of suffering myself, how can I teach others about it, how can I lead the way? I can teach you what I know, but not what I haven't experienced...

    If the boy was enlightened by Gutei's teaching, I think this implies Gutei was enlightened himself. But, then again, that is Gutei's business, and I didn't know him, so this is all just gossip!

    PS: I'm with you with the finger-tying thing.

  6. Neither a stone nor a bamboo are sentient - yet together they enlightened Hsiang-yen.

  7. The boy's finger was not, but his reflex still was there. When trying to raise a non-existent finger he realiced the truth of impermanence in his own body and also was able to see how difficult are to change views about ourselves.

    Do we have any finger to raise?

  8. ... 'Don't be so sure' springs to mind.

    I'd caution against using this koan to add extra fingers when maybe we've borrowed one, or several, too many already.

    Never mind what the fingerless boy realised, what childish antics do we instinctively do when our beliefs and assumptions are evoked? Who or what are we aping?

    At the same time, the boy has played at raising a non-finger and has realised something... dropping off fingers that already aren't ours... 'dropping of body and mind'... etc etc



  9. p.s. Do you need to go around believing that it's wrong to chop boys fingers off in order to know that it's wrong to chop boy's fingers off?

    It's not a matter of certainty then.

    Anyway, the whole thing sounds like a fable to me, historically speaking. I don't know.



  10. Bodhidharma has no legs to stand on,
    Huike’s arm is in the stewpot!
    There are no fingers in this koan,
    except maybe the fingers plugging your ears.
    It's become obvious that you know nothing!

    It would be better to ask; Where did that knife come from?

    How do you respond?

  11. It was just a placebo knife from Gutei's First Aid kit.
    Great relief all round!

  12. Umm… Nobody’s hair on fire over this one…
    Are you guys sure you’re into koan practice?
    Or just playing with words?
    Where is that Rinzai character when you need him? ;-)

    Maybe another clue...
    Pablo came close to the edge but he didn't even get a paper cut.

  13. Damn, I wanted my paper cut.

    I was thinking about what you said, Miles. Perhaps the finger is a metaphor for Gutei's teaching (or way of teaching, or I don't know what). The kid tried to imitate him, then Gutei showed him that to be free he had to stop it. I might even say that Gutei cut the kid's "finger" so that he was alone: alone, without the need to satisfy his teacher or copy him or whatever, the kid foun true liberation.

    When the kid tried to raise his finger, he noticed how empty it was, repeating his teacher's teachings like a dodo...

    (Wow, saying it like that it seems like the koan is about Dharma transmission :P)

  14. Miles: "Where did that knife come from?"

    You reckon that was on the kid's mind when he was gettin' his finger sliced off!?

    Now I see why they just give you guys sticks. :-))



  15. Gassho! Pablo, you have met the razors edge!

    Gutei’s knife is akin to Manjusri’s sword, which cuts through our delusion, the boys finger is just as you describe; someone else’s understanding. Gutei’s teachings are based on Gutei’s understanding and are ultimately only a hindrance to the boy’s awakening.

    Gutei knew he had to relieve him of this obstruction and free his mind. This is the trouble with academic understanding, we think we know something but in truth we are like parrots, we can say the words (or lift the finger) but they are ultimately hollow.

    Without his mimicking finger, the boy is left with nothing to be attached to, as you aptly put it he was “alone”, freed from other’s interpretations and expectations, he realized his own potential. Awakening only comes from direct experience, when we let go of all our perceived notions, we realize that our so called knowledge (all academic) is worthless.


    “When trying to raise a non-existent finger he realized the truth of impermanence in his own body and also was able to see how difficult to change our views about ourselves.” To this I would add “And also to let go of our dependence on others.”

    We know that the teachings are just fingers pointing at the moon, but for some reason we believe that we cannot find the moon without some else’s finger pointing the way. Their finger might as well be poking us in the eye!


    I felt it was better to ask; “Where did that knife come from?” than to chase fingers all over the place. As you so aptly put it; “I'd caution against using this koan to add extra fingers when maybe we've borrowed one, or several, too many already.” These fingers are sticky business, Brad Warner, Dogen, Guitei all generously pointing their fingers to help a blind man who has asked for directions.

    You were spot on with: “…what childish antics do we instinctively do when our beliefs and assumptions are evoked? Who or what are we aping?...At the same time, the boy has played at raising a non-finger and has realized something... dropping off fingers that already aren't ours...”


    Gutei’s knife like Monju’s Sword, cuts away the fog,
    Suddenly, I see the full radiant moon.
    How is this possible without the master pointing the way?
    Maybe his finger was in my eye!

    Deep Bows,

  16. Hi Miles,
    living in an interdependent reality, can we let go our dependence on others?

  17. Hi Hernán
    You are correct to note that we cannot separate ourselves from our interdependent reality, our dependence on others is fundamental to our survival.

    However, this codependency also depends on our individual perception, collectively we depend on each other to contribute individually.

    Independence and codependence are not exclusive terms; they are the two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.

  18. There is no one;
    there is no other.

  19. The essence of Chu Ti's One finger:
    Although he killed innocent children across the world with dumbness, still, after dining, I like to take a nap!

  20. Peter HodgkinsonJune 21, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    Gutei's finger Zen, the whole universe in a finger.
    The whole koan rests on finger, no finger.
    Gutei's zen finger could not be imitated, one must find one's own expression.
    The boy imitated, a most ardent seeker of the truth he wanted to learn so deeply from Gutei, become Gutei.
    With the deepest compassion Gutei, cut off the boys finger, his ability to imitate gone, the boy, turned around, Gutei raised his finger, probably by habit the boy tried to imitate.
    No finger, no imitation, the boy was enlightened at that moment.
    Put into daily life, how often do we imitate, ape, lose ourselves, better to lose a finger than our true nature.
    that is my humble understanding. this i can only say from working with Sochu suzuki roshi, but he cut of my head.
    Peter Hodgkinson

  21. Allen Watts retold this story in zen bones and it read like this, "when asked what is the principle teaching of Buddhism, Gutei would reply by raising one finger. The boy seeing the master do this, decided to emulate the master. When someone from town came to the monastery while Gutei was away, they asked the boy, "what's the principle teaching of Buddhism?" And the boy raised his finger. Gutei was at that moment returning and saw this. Later, he asked the boy, "what is the principle teaching of Buddhism? and when the boy raised his finger up, Gutei swiftly cut it off. The boy runs away crying but is called back by the master. again he asks the boy, "what is the principle teaching of Buddhism" and when the boy went to raise the finger that was no longer there, and upon seeing that it was no longer there, became enlightened." This reading fills some gaps in the story that make it easier to swallow. I believe the principle aspect of this story is the repeated phrase, "The principle teaching of Buddhism," which is a non sequitur because zen Buddhism is not one thing it is all things and nothing interrelated with eachother, and in these kind of stories the master always gives non-answers to these kinds of questions to show how silly the question was to begin with. So when the boy raises his finger that was once there, the master is showing him that the principe teaching of Buddhism is "the finger," Gutei's finger, the boy's finger, the boy's not-finger. They are all related, not the same, but not different. As all enlightenment comes in contrast with samsara, as the awareness of this consciousness is how we know when we have a new one, much like how you reach a state of joy after being confused by a joke and then receiving the punchline, the boy had to realize in the worst way how little he really new about Buddhism, reality, and himself. Life in Hiduism and Buddhism is the universe putting on a big show and playing every single character. The point of enlightenment is to realize that we are all life in different manifestations, and life has tricked itself into believing these roles are true. when the boy lost his finger it represented impermanence, clinging, fear, egotism, delusion, and most literally loss of self all in one extreme and cumulative moment. Gutei's finger is still the principle teaching of zen, as so was the boy's finger laying on the ground, but why it is zen is what the boy realized along with had he not lost his finger, he would not have achieved enlightenment, much the same way after you have a life threatening experience you appreciate how easy it is to die and thus life more, infinite understanding and bliss came directly out of pain. But we will never know because we are not enlightened :) This story reeks of Zen because of how many implications it has and how many lessons it can withhold depending on how hard you think about it.

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  23. Well, I'd read through all the concepts here but it's just filling my head with soup.

    The answer is....

    What answer do you have Gutei when reading the question from an empty page?

    (My description of Geutei's ginger above).