You can't point with someone else's finger...
Those crazy Zen folks are at it again. This week we're looking at the third koan in the Gateless Barrier, which is not actually about child abuse, despite appearances to the contrary.
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to the first article in this series and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
So if it isn't about a vicious old man misusing his position of authority, what's going on here?
The question of authenticity
Sometimes, in a spiritual community, students start to imitate their teacher - copying their mannerisms, repeating their catch-phrases, that kind of thing. In some cases, the group starts to exude a certain 'vibe', a tone set by the person at the top which then permeates the whole community.
This isn't necessarily sinister. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. I know I've seen my teachers handle a particular situation with a grace that, to me, is unimaginable, and I've thought to myself 'Gosh, I wish I could do that!' And there's something to be said for hanging around a particular teacher because they've got something you want.
However, if the imitation is only ever at the surface level, it's rather brittle and shallow. Put someone like that under pressure and it's a different story. Generally, the quality that you might admire in your teacher is actually more like a symptom of an underlying condition - an external manifestation of an inner principle. If you're just copying the manifestations without having understood the principle, you won't have the flexibility to deal with new or unexpected situations.
For example, if we consider the Buddhist moral precepts, the underlying principle is to cause as little harm as possible; the specific precepts are examples of major categories of situations where harm can be caused (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, abuse of intoxicants). It's possible to play all kinds of games with a kind of legalistic interpretation of the precepts - ah well, the fifth precept actually refers to 'fermented beverages', so heroin is fine! - but you can only really play that game if you either haven't yet grasped, or have chosen to ignore, that the basic principle is the avoidance of harm. Once the principle is understood, the specific precepts can actually become somewhat less important, in favour of a focus on the situation at hand and a compassionate attempt to find a wise path through it which minimises harm.
(That last paragraph is probably controversial, but I think I stand by it.)
Getting back to that severed finger, though..?
OK, so we have someone who has been hanging around his teacher for a while, and has noticed that his teacher always answers questions the same way - with a raised finger. And so the boy has started to copy his teacher, also raising a finger when people ask him about Zen.
But Judi knows that the boy hasn't got it yet - it's just an imitation. So he decides to challenge the boy. Symbolically, he cuts off the boy's finger, so that he can't answer a question by raising a finger. My Zen teacher has actually done something similar to me - when I've been attempting to answer a question with my usual well-rehearsed waffle, he'll say 'OK, so you can talk about the koan. Now, show me the koan.' Boom. It's a painful moment, I can tell you - finding yourself stopped in your tracks, utterly unable to respond even though the matter seemed so clear a moment ago.
So in the koan, the boy runs out, screaming in pain - freaking out, because he's been put on the spot and now has no answer. At that precise moment, Judi deploys his 'turning word' (see last week's article for a discussion of turning words in Zen), raising his finger - and the boy is suddenly enlightened. Pow!
Setting up the conditions for insight
Here's another nice little detail embedded in the koan. Notice that this is not the first time that the boy has seen Master Judi's raised finger - after all, he's seen the trick enough times to have started to copy it. So how come the boy never attained enlightenment before, if the finger is so powerful? What made this particular incident so pivotal?
A common source of irritation for meditators is to hear the teacher talk about how life-changingly awesome insight meditation or koan study can be, only to try the technique for themselves and experience absolutely nothing apart from boredom, frustration and discomfort. Insights and breakthroughs really do happen, but they can't be made to happen. The best we can do is set up conditions which encourage them to happen.
So how do we do that? Well, one approach is just to keep meditating. Larger doses (for example, going on a retreat) can often help, although they can also bring up larger volumes of difficult material more quickly, which isn't always a good thing depending on how much you want to deal with that stuff right now.
In Zen stories, enlightenment often comes about either when a practitioner is focused very deeply in meditation, or alternatively thrown into total confusion and bewilderment; then, in either case, the enlightenment comes when the state of either total focus or total chaos is suddenly shattered - perhaps by a turning word, by the sound of a bell or a pebble hitting bamboo, or by seeing the upraised finger of the teacher.
Insight really means 'finding a new way to see the world' - my teacher's teacher on the jhana side, Ayya Khema, used to define insight as an 'understood experience', in which something totally incompatible with your previous world view happened, and you were sufficiently present to notice it and appreciate it for what it was. So insight is particularly likely to arise when we're thrown out of our usual equilibrium - either because we become so focused and quiet (either single-pointedly, as in jhana, or openly, as in Silent Illumination), or so disoriented and bewildered, that in either case our minds stop all their usual busywork, and the clouds part enough for us to be able to see the moon. If, at that moment, something happens to direct our attention upwards, we see all that heavenly glory (to quote Bruce Lee).
Getting back to the koan - is the message 'don't copy your teacher', then?
Not quite. Notice that there's a second part to the koan, much later in Judi's life, when the teacher is on his deathbed. He tells the assembled monks that his 'one-finger Zen' technique came from his own teacher, Tianlong. The difference, however, is that Judi fully grasped the finger (so to speak), totally penetrating the depths of the principle behind it, and as a result he's been able to use it for his whole life without it going stale or losing its efficacy. Every time Judi raised a finger, it was an authentic expression of his own enlightenment.
Meditators come in all shapes and sizes, and Judi is a good example of a 'one-technique freak' - someone who has one particular thing that works really, really well for them, and is basically the only thing they do. You'll often see this in someone who themselves had a massive breakthrough as a result of a particular technique, and has become a lifelong devotee of it ever since. (In fact, you could argue that I'm training as a jhana teacher for basically this reason.)
On the other hand, some of us are more eclectic - a polite term is 'toolbox yogi', in the sense that we have a whole bunch of different techniques available to us as the need arises. As you'll see from the guided meditations on my website (try them out!), I practise, and teach, a whole range of different approaches, and I'm a big believer in offering different practices to help people find what's going to work best for them. I must admit, sometimes I'm really envious of the Soto Zen types with their total focus on Silent Illumination/shikantaza, whereas I have a quandary every single week about what practice to end my weekly meditation class with!
Which way is better? Perhaps that's best answered through another story. (I don't know the original source, unfortunately - I heard this from a friend.)
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!