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Nomon Tim Burnett : Gateless Barrier 3 - Juzhi Raises a Finger

Wednesday, January 02, 2019 8:28 AM | Nomon Tim Burnett (Administrator)

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Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan)
Case 3 "Jùzhī Raises a Finger"

Featured Teacher:

Pinyin Chinese Jùzhī Yīzhǐ
Wade-Giles Chinese Chu-chih
Japanse Gutei Isshi
Lived c 8-9C

With the third case of the Mumonkan koan collection we encounter our first bit of upsetting violent language. There was a slap in case two. But in case 3 things get more intense.

We didn't talk abou the slap in case two much. Remember in the tail end of the story after master Baijang had the whole encounter with the previous master Baijang who lived 500 years as a fox because of his arrogance about karma. At the very end after he frees the old master with his wise turning words, had the monks hike around the mountain and do a cremation ceremony for the fox body they found there, and then he told the story that night in his talk: his chief disciple Huangbo asked the master, "The old man missed the turning word and rebord as a fox five hundred times. What if he had given the right answer each time he was asked a qusetion - what would have happened to him?"

Baizang invited him up to the teaching platform and the student, Huango, actually slapped the master and this delighted the teacher who exclaimed in Zen code: "I thought the barbarian had a red beard, but here is a red-bearded barbian." Which is saying you're as good as Bodhidharma, meaning: "you've got it!"

He admired his students directness and immediacy we might read that. A real moment of "YES!"

Yamada roshi's commentary says is wasn't a real slap but a mock slap. The student clapping his hands together by the teacher's face like a slapstick routine.

So we might read all the violence in these Zen stories - like cutting cats in two which we'll get to later on - as enacted. A serious enactment - making a point and not just messing around - but also not really hitting people or cutting off arms or breaking legs.

Or Robert Aitken says we might read the violence like we hear in Grimm's fairy tales which we're so used to it doesn't bother us and we just hear it as part of the story, part of the message.


I smell the blood of an Englishman,

Be he alive, or be he dead,

I’ll have his bones to grind my bread."

And popping bad children in the oven and so on.

See what you think in this case:

Mumonkan Case 3 - Jùzhī Raises a Finger

Whenever Jùzhī (chOOTs jzuh) was asked a question he simply raised one finger.

One day a visitor asked Jùzhī's attendant what his master taught. The boy raised a finger.

Hearing of ths, Jùzhī cut off the boy's finger with a knife. As he ran from the room, screaming with pain, Jùzhī called to him. When he turned his head, Jùzhī raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.

When Jùzhī was about to die, he said to his assembled monks: "I received this one-finger Zen from Tiānlóng (tAHN lang). I used it all my life but never used it up." When he finished saying this he died.

There is much here but you do have to get through a little revulsion of that image don't you?

One thing is here is that it's exactly that: one thing. Dogen wrote to sustain one practice is to master one practice. There's a wonderful faith in steady single-minded practice in our way. This is such a great antidote to our endless seeking for novelty and originality I think. What an incredible strain it is to think we have to be original and creative and fresh all the time.

Just raise a finger. Just sit down. But it's in how you do it too isn't it? You can't just copy someone else. You have to do your one practice with a depth of commitment and understanding. To see it through to the bottom. The boy in this story was merely imitating his teacher and didn't really understand his "one finger zen" until the drastic moment of the master cutting off his finger. Then he got it. Or maybe we imagine the master whipping out a knife and pinning the boy against the table and stopping the knife right as it reached the skin. A bit of mock violence to shock the boy into awakening. Still very dramatic.

Or maybe we set aside out literalness altogether and enter into a more mythical allegorical universe with giants mashing up Englishmen and Zen masters chopping off boy's fingers and see what we can learn from the point of the story without being grossed out.

We tend to picture holding up an index finger but most cultures hold up the thumb to show 1, then the index finger is added to make two. I'll always remember buying something small at a convenience story in the middle of the night in Paris. This great big gruff guy behind the counter holding up his thumb and saying "un franc."

And of course it's not really about holding up a finger whichever finger it is. It's about commiting to your practice. Suzuki Roshi said, "the most important thing is to remember the most important thing."

What's really important right now. Right now. And whether it's convenient to you or not, that's it - that's what you do, that's where you go. Divining into just that. Just this. That's one finger Zen.

And so often in these stories a powerful sense of lineage and passing on an understanding somehow. The exchange with the boy did lead to his sudden enlightenment! Would you take that trade. But very beautifully at the end of the koan a sense some years later when master Jùzhī is about to die he remembers his teacher with deep gratitude. : "I received this one-finger Zen from Tiānlóng (tAHN lang). I used it all my life but never used it up."

If we understand what we are being offered we see that what we receive from our teachers, our good friends, our parents, our world is infinite and we can never use it up. And we can be grateful. This includes receiving teachings we don't like. Painful lessons of all kinds.

The great Tibetan Buddhist teaching poem 8 Verses for Training the Mind the author makes the point they are always making in the lojong mind training texts that probably the lessons you didn't want to receive are the most important the most valuable. 3 of the verses speak to this:

When I encounter beings of unpleasant character

and those oppressed by intense negativity and suffering,

as though finding a treasure of precious jewels,

may I cherish them, for they are so rarely found

When others out of jealousy

treat me wrongly with abuse and slander,

may I take upon myself the defeat

and offer to others the victory.

Even if someone I have helped

or in whom I have placed great hope

gravely mistreats me in hurtful ways,

may I view him as my sublime teacher

While I also love how our practice has aspectes of peace and stress reduction and calming down - so nice - it's imporant to appreciate that the Dharma is also a very high commitment, high expectations tradition too. If we want to walk the path to real freedom we may have to really go for it. Not just accepting that others get confused and out of their suffering lash out at us but to appreciate them and feel grateful to them and treat them as our teacher.

They are offering us deep teachings about attachments and aversions of all kinds and greasing the stuck wheels in our heart that allow us open to freedom and equanamity. Shantideva's famous chapter in Bodhicharyavatara about patient has dozens more verses like these. Thank you pissing and shitting on me, you are helping me understand my mind so that I can become more compassionate and understanding. Take a finger while you're at it, I give everything to you freely for the sake of awakening for all beings.


A bit part of the koan tradition is the layers of commentary that are added to these stories. Scholars define a "koan" as a unit of text that gets repeated, more or less consistently, in the Zen literature with commentary attached to it. And then more commentary gets attached. So my commenting on this koan as a koan and your listening to me we're participating in further koan-ing this story of Jùzhī Raising a Finger as a koan.

Wumen's commentary verse focussed on the Tiānlóng, the teacher's teacher in this case.

Wumen's Verse

Tiānlóng made a fool of old Jùzhī

who cut the boy with a sharp knife

just as the mountain spirit raised his hand

and Huanshan mountain range with it's many ridges was split in two.

The mountain spirit here is a reference to another story about Jùzhī - here's how Aitken Roshi retells it.

[Gateless Barrier p. 29-30]

Many mysterious encounters: the nun Shih-chi appearing out of nowhere and confounding the younger Jùzhī. Then in his dark night of the soul a mountain spirit points him towards his true teacher. And from his teacher learning this deeply committed one-pointed - one finger Zen. "un franc!"

Can you commit to your one life just as it is? Can you commit to this practice in whatever way you understand it? Can you embrace the trouble that surely comes and appreciate those you bring you those troublesome teachings. It sooner or later leads you to your true teacher as the mountains are split in two.

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