What Zen Is This Koan?

Reading in a book, I came across the following Zen koan:

Whenever Gutei Osho was asked about Zen, he simply raised a finger. Once a visitor asked Gutei’s boy attendant, “What does your master teach?” The boy too raised his finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Gutei called to him, and when he turned around, Gutei raised his finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened.

Do you get it? I don’t know if I get it. How does the boy become enlightened? What does the visitor make of it all? What does the master do with the finger?

Zen koans are famous for simultaneously suggesting and resisting meaning. This one however I cracked. Through a process of ‘inductive leapfrog-thinking’ I realised there had been an error in the translation. The translator had consistently rendered “raised a finger” for what in the original Japanese had in fact been “gave the finger”. Thus the true koan reads:

Whenever Gutei Osho was asked about Zen, he simply gave people the finger. Once a visitor asked Gutei’s boy attendant, “What does your master teach?” The boy gave him the finger. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy, screaming with pain, began to run away. Gutei called to him, and when he turned around, Gutei gave him the finger. The boy suddenly became enlightened.

Makes much better sense. Still, not very Zen.

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2 Responses to What Zen Is This Koan?

  1. sparkle says:

    I’ve been reading zen koans too, partly for personal reasons and partly practical–one of the characters in the book I’m working on keeps trying to explain Zen to the protagonist, unsuccessfully. She can’t decide if she is just too stupid too understand or the Buddhist is just fucking with her.

    Thanks to your post, I am now enlightened.

    • Junior says:

      Over the past year I have gone the trhough the end of a 15 year relationship and you are describing exactly what my life has been like for the past 8 months. I may not have ‘left the luggage at the door’, for me more like an atom bomb that blew everything to ash, but I recognize the disconcerting freedom you describe. And now the heightened attention that’s brought as a new life is again constructed…………

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