The Gateless Gate, Case Three: Chu-Chih raises one finger
Whenever Chu-Chih (J: Gutei) was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Chu-Chih’s attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Chu-Chih cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran from the room, Chu-Chih called to him. When the boy turned his head Chu-Chih raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.
When Chu-Chih was about to die he said to his assembled monks, “I received this one finger Zen from T’ien-lung. I used it all my life but never used it up.”
This is a koan story that is greatly commented on in the Rinzai tradition and the focus of that commentary is usually suchness. When we make a gesture such as raising our finger, we’re not doing it in a symbolic or representative way – it’s just natural. It’s a complete expression of our present state. That perspective is part of a wider discussion within the Zen tradition about the uses and dangers of language.
However, the key to understanding this story is understanding the background detail. Which, given this case also appears as case 19 in the Blue Cliff Record, is available to us. In that background detail, we’re told that prior to his enlightenment, Chu-Chih assiduously practised zazen by himself. One day he was visited by a nun who demanded of him that he say something appropriate but he was unable to do so. And so the nun left. The name of that nun was True Encounter.
Chu-Chih was upset by this. He intended to go and find a master but he heard a voice saying that, in fact, a master would come to him. And several days later that’s exactly what happened. Chu-Chih related the story to this person who in response simply held up one finger. And that resulted in Chu-Chih becoming enlightened.
In his subsequent teaching, was Chu-Chih holding up his own finger? Or was he holding up his master’s finger? And what are we to make of him simply teaching in this one way?
In the incident in question why was it that in this situation the boy was enlightened, but on previous occasions when he witnessed the teaching he was not? And whose finger this time was Chu-Chih holding up? Was it his finger? The boy’s finger? His master’s finger? Or all three? Or something else? Classical Chinese leaves all these interpretations open.
I think this is a teaching about interdependence. So when we lift our finger, or an eyebrow, or our heart – then we are also lifting the fabric of the whole universe – all being, all space, all time – because we’re part of that fabric. The severed finger (whether or not Chu-Chih is holding that finger up and that’s what causes the boy to become enlightened) similarly is not separate from this fabric of being. And is always communicating and expressing: severed or unsevered.
Nothing is severed.
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