‘Gutei’s Finger’ is the 3rd case or koan in the Mumonkan, The Gateless Barrier, a collection of koans compiled in the 13th century by Rinzai master Wumen Huikai (known as Mumon Ekai in Japan). The 48 koans in the collection are all sourced from well-known scenes and moments through the history of Zen that Master Mumon presented to his students during a monastic training period in the summer of 1228. The koans were subsequently transcribed alongside Mumon’s commentary and a poem of his own that he composed inspired by the subject. This case about Master Gutei’s finger is a tale about the transmission of teachings from teacher to student and what the truth of transmission really means.
Mumonkan Case 3: Gutei’s Finger
Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When a visitor asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy raised his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief, seized him and cut off his finger with a knife. As the boy screamed and ran out of the room, Gutei called to him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
When Gutei was about to die, he said to the assembled monks,”I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu. I used it all my life and yet could not exhaust it” and then he passed away.
Where Gutei and the boy attained enlightenment is not at the tip of the finger itself. If this simple truth is not comprehended, Tenryu, Gutei, the boy and you also will be bound together once and for all.
Gutei made a fool of old Tenryu,
With the sharp blade he did simply harm the boy.
That’s nothing compared to the Mountain Spirit when he raised his hand
And split Kasan (the great mountain) in two.