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Chu-chih [Gutei] Raises One Finger : The Gateless Barrier Case 3

Whenever Chu-chih 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 he ran from the room, screaming with pain, Chu-chih called to him. When he 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." With this he entered his eternal rest.

Wu-men's Comment

The enlightenment of Chu-chih and the boy has nothing to do with the end of a finger. If you can realize this, the T'ien-lung, Chu-chih, the boy and you yourself are all run through with a single skewer.

Wu-men's Verse

T'ien-lung made fool of old Chu-chih
Who cut the boy with a sharp blade,
Just as the deity Chu-ling raised his had,
And Hua-shan, with its many ridges split in two.

This one of the most famous cases in the Wu-men kuan (Mumonkan), but like Nansen's killing the cat, it's easy to get sidetracked by the drama of the knife and miss the real point of Chu-chih's one finger Zen. Perhaps it's best to start with Chu-chih's own story and how he received this one finger Zen from T'ien-lung.
When Chu-chih was a young man, he lived as a hermit, sitting all alone in a little hut in the mountains. No doubt he practiced very intensely and entered deep into the great silence of samadhi. One day, however, a nun, who was on a pilgrimage came up the path. She walked into the hut where Chu-chih sat in zazen, walked around his seat three times, banged her staff on the ground, and declared, "If you can say a word of Zen, I'll take my hat off and stay." Well, for all his deep samadhi, Chu-chih didn't know what to say, so the nun again walked around him three times and repeated her challenge. Again, Chu-chih sat tongue-tied, unable to come up with a "word of Zen" that could adequetely express what he experienced in his zazen. Disgusted by his inaction, the nun left.
This encounter completely discombobulated poor Chu-chih. Despite all his years of deep meditation, he had failed the test. Why couldn't he come up with a "word of Zen?" A chasm had opened up between all the words he knew perfectly well and the mysterious "Zen word" the nun demanded and he fell right in. Chu-chih decided he better stop sitting by himself and seek out a teacher. But that night he had a dream in which he was told not to leave his hut and his teacher would soon appear. Sure enough, the next day, T'ien-lung arrived. Chu-chih poured out the whole story of how he was humiliated by the nun. Having listened to it all, T'ien-lung simply raised one finger, whereupon Chu-chih had his realization.
If we're going to understand Chu-chih's realization, we have to understand what preceded it: the way all the confidence he had built up during his years of sitting alone were shattered by his encounter with the nun. All that had to be taken away - just like the boy's finger had to be cut off - before he could feel the impact of Tien-lung raising his finger. We say, "delusion is gain, enlightenment loss." We have to lose what we know in order to simply experience what is. Chu-chih's attendant probably felt he was being a good student, immediately raising one finger in response to the visitor's question - at least he didn't just sit there not knowing what to say - the way Chu-chih had been stymied by the nun!
The boy had his finger cut off the way Chu-chih's pride in his practice had been cut off. R.H. Bythe tells another version of the story in which the boy's enlightenment happens like this:
One day, Gutei having hid a knife in his sleeve said to the boy, " "I hear that you understand what Buddhism really is: is that so?" The boy replied, "It is so." Gutei said, "What is the Buddha?" The boy stuck up one finger. Gutei cut it off with the knife. As the boy ran howling out, Gutei called to him, "What is the Buddha?" The boy, lifting his hand (to stick out his finger) saw no finger there and became suddenly enlightened.
I like this version even better. It shows how the moment of our enlightenment is a moment of having what we've been most sure of stripped away, to reveal. What? A world where knowing & not knowing collapse into the whole of this moment, the whole of this universe.
When I think about this story of Chu-chih and the boy, I'm always reminded of a story by Flannery O'Connor called "Good Country People."
It's a story about a woman with an artificial leg: as a little girl she lost her leg in a hunting accident. Ever since she has been bitter and withdrawn. She's even changed her named from "Joy" to "Hulga" - Hulga being the ugliest name she can think of! Nonetheless, she's quite bright, goes off to college and even earns a Ph.D. in philosophy before returning home to live in a small Southern town with her mother. One day a young Bible salesman comes to call. Hulga, with all her philosophical sophistication, thinks she can make fun of him and manipulate him, but it is she who ends up being seduced by him. They go for a long walk and he takes her up into the hay loft of a barn. There he asks her, "Show me where your wooden leg joins on." She is horrified at his request, "Why do you want to see it," she asks.
"Because," he said, " it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else."
"She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, "All right," it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her life and finding it again, miraculously in his."
However, once she takes off the wooden leg, he steals it from her and leaves her stranded and alone in the hay loft. It comes as a shock to realize that O'Connor is telling us that this is how God acts in our lives: first he makes us completely surrender and then sacrifice what we imagine is most unique or precious or necessary in our lives. Stealing a leg, cutting off a finger. To truly live, first we must die.
Wu-men's verse says "T'ien-lung made a fool of Chu-chih," and so he did, but not the way the nun did or the Bible salesman made a fool of Hulga. T'ien-lung carried the process forward one more step. Chu-chih no longer had any answers, but he now had the one finger Zen which he used to answer all questions. Beyond all dichotomies of knowing or not knowing, ordinary language or "a word of Zen," for the rest of his life Chu-chih offered everyone this one finger Zen. To read about it once makes for a good story, but how many of us would actually stay with a teacher like that? No matter what you said, no matter what you presented in daisan, all you'd get back - year after year after year - is that same damned finger!
What, then, is the real meaning of Chu-chih's holding up that finger? Be careful you don't think he held it up as a symbol for oneness. That finger isn't a symbol of anything at all - it's just [ holds up his finger].