What is One-Finger Zen?

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.

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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.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. If my teacher cut off my finger I would be unbelievably pissed. If he then stuck up one of his own, as if to mock my new deformity caused by his actions, I would be even more unbelievably pissed, not enlightened. Sigh. I guess I have much to learn.

  2. Obscure commentaries point out that while the original story doesn’t mention which finger it is, one can conclude from the violent reaction of the Master that the boy had held up his middle finger. One just doesn’t flick off visitors to a monastery. Then, when he called the boy back again, the Master held up his ring finger, and the boy realized that with enlightenment come the loosing of bodily restrictions.

    • charlie one finger zen Says: February 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

      the one finger zen is hard to classify but its not about standing on your finger and its the index finger that is eventually stood upon not the ring finger. standing on the finger is a by product of the exercise but not the reason for practicing i practice it so i would know. its a qi gong exercise or a special kind of excercice that utilizes chi an inner body energy source first perceived by Chinese medical practices. by clearing chi blockages in the body (sickness) and improving the amount and strength of your chi one can develop many amazing fetes. the one finger zen is a special skill that is developed with several exercises that encompass the mind the body and the chi and in doing so activate the maximum potential of your chi. the one finger zen is the ability to heal people with qi or to likewise to kill or other wise harm them without any physical contact. the chi is struck across space and aimed at acupuncture points or meridians to cause insidious harm.
      it is also a meditative practice that is not nesesarilly related to full nirvana enlightenment but rather an extremely high level martial skill. as a meditation it can also heal yourself on a physiological physical and energy level. the famed distance of the skill can strike at 36 steps away to kill but thats not a limit to how powerful it can be but rather a stepping stone to greater tasks. a person in command of this would be very healthy very powerful and most likely very secretive with their skill. i am no master i cannot yet strike across space with the one finger zen my name is fake in case you couldn’t tell. wongkk.com thats where you should go to learn about the one finger zen in more detail as grand master wong kiew kit is at a much much much much higher level in attainment

  3. Daily linklets 7th April

    This is a daily collection of links, some with commentary, to news stories and interesting blog posts. It will be updated throughout the day with a new timestamp for the updates. Scroll down for today’s other posts. Asia’s already pushing its candidate…

  4. Everyone seems to have missed the point completely. The boy mimicked the actions of his master which in turn was a great disrespect since the boy truly did not understand zen nor exactly what Master Gutei was implying when he raised his finger. The boy was enlightened because even though he has lost a finger, all he needed was one finger to continue practicing the teachings of his master.

  5. Bob (no, really) Says: April 9, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I think that all comments here are to some degree correct and to another degree incorrect. There are important lessona to be learned here about the loosing of bodily restrictions on one’s enlightenment and also about not simply parroting something you do not understand. To rely too heavily upon one’s actions, gestures, or even physical body to understand Zen blocks the effort entirely. Also, if we simply repeat something we have been told or if we twist the teachings of another, also without understanding, to be disrespectful to either aspirants or the Master who gave the wisdom, we equally impair our ability to understand.

    There is another point, however. I believe that Exist has made an error. In the classic style of the koan, there is no one right answer. There is no answer at all, and there are infinite. This is the nature of a koan, and someone who says they have the only right “answer” to a koan will experience difficulty because of their inability to look past their own point of view. There isn’t even necessarily an answer at all. The koan itself is the answer and the question all wrapped up into one. Finding both within the story is only the beginning of the journey down the road of one-finger zen.


    -Bob Calhoun.

  6. PERRONGO Says: April 20, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    the moral of this story:
    If somebody ask you about ZEN, and you psycho master is by your side…..hide your fingers and feign you are deaf…..

  7. Hello

    One-finger Zen, it is very intersting, it is imposibel to stay in a finger.
    Wudang TAO and Shaolin and more person which training kungfu whould to be this. I think it is very nice to be.

    http://www.labikungfu.tk labi_120@hotmail.com

    Labi TAO

  8. in response to “zhwj”

    In China, the middle finger is not “flipping off.” The monk was not upset about the student flipping-off anyone. In fact if you go to the temple on Wudan you can see huge guardian statues gesturing what would appear to be “flipping-off.” However, you must understand that the Pericardium Meridian in Chinese acupuncture systems ends at the tip of the middle finger. Since the Pericardium energy acts as the guardian of the Heart, or Emporer, the gesture of showing the middle finger shows the status of the statue as a guardian of the temple.

    This story isn’t talking about flipping-off. Not sure what it is talking about, but i know it isn’t that.

  9. The master cut off the finger because holding up one’s finger is not the answer to, ““What kind of teaching does your master give?”

    When the boy retreated in shock, and the master called out to reconnect with him, the master held up one finger, and the boy was enlightened. Perhaps because he now understood that the teachings of the master had nothing to do with holding a finger in the air at all.

    The master enters nirvana saying, ” I’ve used it (one finger zen) all my life, but I have not exhausted it.” No. indeed. It was not exhausted. It was passed on to a very enlightened 9 fingered student.

  10. this story is similar to an american tail….. when the boy asked mr. owl “mr.owl, how many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop” the world may never know……zen!

  11. All Zen stories have to do with the state of mind. The body is just a bridge use to walk accross.

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