Thursday, 19 November 2015


11. The report that a certain Zen Master brought his disciple to great awakening by cutting off one of the disciple's fingers is not the sort of story calculated to give Zen Buddhism a good press in the modern Western world. Taking the story to be literally true, we might attempt to defend the master's action by describing it in terms of tough love, of being cruel to be kind, where the end justifies the means. Or we might see it as a cruel and violent act that only serves to discredit the whole practice of Zen. Either way, we have missed the point. We have failed to take account of the literary form in which this story has come down to us. The story, as we have it, is meant to function as a koan, a meditation device in Zen that is not meant to be taken literally. So in the case of Gutei, who practised One Finger Zen, the story about him cutting off the boy's finger should be read as metaphor. Here we see a disciple who, when questioned about his master's teaching, demonstrated that he had not penetrated beyond its outward form. Hearing of this, the master quickly and decisively negated that form. In Gutei's act of negation, the disciple came to deep understanding.

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