Zen Master Gutei Chikan was famous for his One Finger Zen. Whenever he was asked about the Way he would simply raise a single finger. His attendant, a young boy, often imitated Master Gutei by raising his own finger when visitors to the monastery asked about Master Gutei’s teaching. Hearing of this, Master Gutei summoned the young attendant to his room where he took out a knife and cut off the boy’s finger. As the boy ran screaming in pain from the room, Gutei called out to the boy just as he reached the door. When the boy turned to look back at Master Gutei, the old monk raised his finger. In this moment, the boy realized his True Self.

What did the boy realize? He had imitated Master Gutei’s raised finger many times. Why was the sight of the old master’s finger on this occasion the stimulus that broke open his mind revealing his own True Self? If you are looking for an answer in Gutei’s finger, you have missed it.

Working with people who struggle with addiction, one often has the opportunity to see the many ways that denial becomes a barrier to recovery. Pain is a powerful motivator giving rise to myriad forms of avoidance. One form of denial is to assert early and often in treatment that one will never use again. For example, I often hear folks say on the second or third day of treatment things like, “This program is great, I know now that I will never take another drink.”

Folks who have been in recovery for years immediately detect that a person who utters such a proclamation, so early in treatment, has not yet made recovery into something of their own. They are just mouthing what they think the treatment team, their families, employers, etc., want to hear.

One can go in an out of treatment programs for years carrying on like this. When the drinking gets too bad, just check into a program, take the pledge, say all the right things, get discharged and before too long, start using again. One can become really skilled at fooling others into believing that their recovery is genuine. They can fool everyone except those who have walked the difficult path of recovery.

The good news is there is a path out of addiction. The bad news is that it is painful – plain and simple. Paradoxically, it is often when one is in the deepest throws of that pain that the path to recovery finally opens up right in front of you. This is sometimes known in the business as “hitting bottom.”

Gutei’s attendant thought he demonstrated an understanding of Gutei’s Zen by raising his own finger. When Gutei cut off the boy’s finger all he knew in that moment was his pain. It was all encompassing. It was real, right here, right now.

When Gutei raised his finger in response to the boy’s pain, the young lad suddenly understood his own Way. He had made Gutei’s Zen and the Zen of all the Patriarch’s his own.

Gutei’s teacher, Master Koshu Tenryu, was once asked by a monk, “How does one escape from the three realms [of desire]?” Master Tenryu replied, “Where are you right this moment?”

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