What is One-Finger Zen?
02 Apr 2005
Recently I came across the term 一指禅 in my Chinese studies. I asked my tutor about it. She said it was a mystical kung fu secret developed by the Shaolin monks. Using this technique, a monk can do a “handstand” using only one finger. Supposedly he can keep this up for several minutes.
An English search for “One-finger Zen,” however, turns up a different story. Unsurprisingly, information about Zen in English is normally about Japanese Zen (rather than “Chinese Zen,” or Chán). I found this story, which I remember hearing in Japan when I studied there:
> Whatever he was asked about Zen, Master Gutei simply stuck up one finger. He had a boy attendant whom a visitor asked, “What kind of teaching does your master give?” The boy held up one finger too. Hearing of this, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran away screaming with pain, Gutei called to him. When the boy turned his head, Gutei stuck up one finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened. When Gutei was about to die, he said to the assembled monks, “I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu; I’ve used it all my life, but I have not exhausted it.” Having said this, he entered nirvana. [full text]
So it appears to be both a badass kung fu trick as well as a full Zen philosophy. I was pleased to discover that the Chinese have yet another interpretation, which was good for a chuckle.