Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mumonkan - Case 3: Gutei's Finger

The Case:

Whenever Gutei Oshõ was asked about Zen, he simply raised his finger. 

Once a visitor asked Gutei's boy attendant, "What does your master teach?" The boy too raised his finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy's finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Gutei called to him, and when he turned around, Gutei raised his finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened.

When Gutei was about to pass away, he said to his assembled monks, "I obtained one-finger Zen from Tenryû and used it all my life but still did not exhaust it." When he had finished saying this, he entered into eternal Nirvana.

Mumon's Comment:

The enlightenment of Gutei and of the boy does not depend on the finger. If you understand this, Tenryû, Gutei, the boy, and you yourself are all run through with one skewer.

Mumon's Verse:

Gutei made a fool of old Tenryû,
Emancipating the boy with a single slice,
Just as Kyorei cleaved Mount Kasan
To let the Yellow River run through.

My Analysis: 

It helps to note that there are three pieces to this koan.  The first sentence is the first piece:  Whenever he was asked about Zen, Gutei simply raised his finger.  The second piece is the story of the young attendant's enlightenment.  The third is Gutei's deathbed quote.  I'm dividing it up this way because discussing it in pieces may help clarify some of what drives this koan.  
First, a bit of background on the figure of Gutei, which one of Mumon's readers in his own time would likely have known.  As a young man, Gutei lived in solitude, meditating and studying on his own.  One day he was visited by a nun, who asked him to speak a word of Zen.  He couldn't give her an answer, and viewed it as a personal failing of himself.  He was dismayed.  Shortly thereafter, he was visited by master Tenryu.  Desperate to understand his own failing, he begged Tenryu to teach him.  Tenryu simply raised his finger, and Gutei was enlightened. Reading this, you likely focus on the finger.  The finger is unimportant; what is important is Gutei's internal struggle to understand.  His own fostering of the "great doubt," which left him shaken and unsure of himself.  In that moment when Tenryu raised his finger, there must have been a moment of Gutei's mind trying to understand, and then, under the accumulated strain of doubting itself, giving up understanding.  And that is when it happens. 

At first, Gutei's method of using this gesture to answer questions seems unhelpful, and to many it probably was.  What does it mean to just raise his finger?  What meaning can you find in it?  You could probably find some meaning to attach to it, such as "the entire universe is one," or "this is the line between the enlightened and unenlightened," but Gutei never spoke about the meaning in his finger; finding a meaning and sticking it to the gesture is your own doing. It is something you add to it.  By doing so, you are forced to face the realization that thinking about it represents that attachment to finding meaning. If your own great doubt is as deep as Gutei's was when he met Tenryu, then this strain may be enough.  Otherwise, and most likely, it just seems like silliness. 

The boy serving Master Gutei probably saw him raise his finger hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.  It was his only answer to questions of Zen.  It was his only teaching.  So when asked "what does your master teach?", how can the boy answer but to raise his finger?  He has literally no other answer to give.  

Gutei's response, cutting the finger off, sounds monstrous under the circumstances.  He has given the boy no other teaching, and appears to be punishing him for answering a question truthfully.  The problem is in viewing the act as a punishment.  The boy doesn't understand the significance of raising the finger, which involves understanding the insignificance.  His understanding is stuck on the finger itself.  It's stuck in mimicking the gesture.  In cutting it off, Gutei is forcefully removing that mental attachment.  The boy can no longer raise his finger and delude himself into thinking that is Zen.  This alone could be viewed as a harsh (though perhaps necessary) initial teaching to keep the boy from getting stuck.  

However, in that moment of pain, the boy was probably struggling to understand why this was done to him.  What had he done wrong?  He may have been in a mind to question the reasoning of the master he serves, and he certainly would be questioning himself, which, along with the pain, would have put him in a mindset of that same great doubt that Gutei himself was in when he met Tenryu.  So when Gutei calls out to the boy, and then raises his finger, the attempts to understand the finger are past.  His mind would have strained at trying to see the significance of this gesture, and then it gives up understanding.  And again, that is when it happens.

And then in the final lines, we hear of Gutei saying that he never exhausted Tenryu's one-finger-Zen.  Had the boy, or anyone else, come to accept the finger as just a mundane answer, it may have exhausted its usefulness.  Had anyone gotten the opportunity to attach a meaning to it, it may have exhausted its usefulness.  But through his life, Gutei kept that one-finger-Zen as meaningless as it was the day he received it.  It never meant anything to anyone but what they brought to it, but it remained a tool that could break someone under the strain of their own attempts to understand, if they were primed with the great doubt.  

1 comment:

  1. Nothing like an answer that's been 'primed' with hours of doubt, a lot of meditation, sweat, tears, hard work. Then it is really yours, unlike the way education in America nowadays, parrots repeating what other parrots heard what an authority parrot opined about another great parrot wise sayings collected by disciple parrots, and annotated and commented upon to death.