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.

Thursday, 12 November 2015


10. The history of Zen Buddhism is not lacking in the names of masters whose actions have sent shockwaves through the tradition. Foremost among these is Gutei, or Jushi if you prefer, the revered exponent of One Finger Zen. The story goes that a visitor to Gutei's temple asked the boy attendant what his master taught. The boy immediately raised one finger. When Gutei learnt of the boy's action, he summoned him, got him to hold up a finger and then promptly cut it off. As the boy ran off screaming, Gutei called his name. Stopping and looking back, the boy saw Gutei raise one finger. Thereupon, we are told, the boy attendant had great realization.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


9. The Zen Master's concern is to help the disciple to uncover his or her True Face. Given that each disciple has particular needs and talents, the master needs to be sensitive to these and adapt the teaching accordingly. With this in mind Zen Masters utilize what have come to be called upaya, a technical term meaning 'skilful means'. But even here Zen Masters won't be tied down. Take, for example, the case of the ninth century master Gutei, also known by his Chinese name Jushi. He is chiefly remembered not only because his teaching was so simple but also because it was always the same. It is said that whenever he was asked about Zen he simply raised his finger.