Philosophy: The Monk and the Finger

There is a story in Asian philosophy about a young monk. His goal in life, and the goal of his entire religious society is to attain enlightenment. Everyday the young monk completes his chores around the compound, participates in meditation practices, exercises, and does all of his monkly duties. But what he looked forward to the most was attending class everyday to learn more about the world. He and his peers visit their teacher, a master who was a much older, wiser, and experienced monk, already enlightened.

The young monk loved to learn and gobbled up every lesson his master gave him with a veracious appetite. The duties given to him by his superiors were seemingly endless, but what little time he had to himself he spent combing through ancient texts with lightning speed, driven merely by curiosity at its purest form. Amongst his peers he was seen as a teacher’s pet, always asking detailed questions and answering as many questions that were asked of the class as he could.

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Respect for one’s elders and superiors was valued very highly in this society. Especially in the classroom, pupils were not allowed to speak freely and were expected to first ask permission before inquiring or making a statement. The young monk’s preferred manner of asking permission to speak was to raise only his left index finger until he was called upon. Not only did he raise his finger in the classroom, but in every aspect of his life. Even when conversing with his friends the most informal of settings, the young monk pointed to the sky with his left pointer finger to indicate he had something to add.

The young monk’s wise master noticed his finger going up for every interaction he had in class. He studied the boy and it didn’t take long for this enlightened master to deduce that his young pupil relied on his finger to communicate with the world. This was an opportunity to teach a great lesson.

The next day the young monk finished his chores and made his way to class. Unlike most days, the master didn’t begin lecturing about the wildlife, the written word, or math. Instead of teaching lessons about the world he simply sat in silence staring off into the distance while his students waited patiently. With the young monk sitting in the front of the crowd as usual, the master finally asked a single question, “what is enlightenment?” The other students were taken by surprise. They sat in bewilderment. Why did their master ask such a general question. If such a question could be answered in one class, why did they spend so many days learning about the world to answer it?

But the young monk did not hesitate. The question had barely left the master’s lips and the young monk’s left index finger shot up to give an answer as it always did. Just as fast as his finger pointed to the heavens, the master pulled his own right arm out from his kimono. He had been concealing a long blade on his person, and with lightning fast reflexes he lopped off the young monk’s finger down to a bloody nub.

Shocked by what they had seen, the class was aghast. They were squirming about in mild shock while the master was nonchalantly cleaning the red from his blade. The room, silent and peaceful just moments ago, had come alive with disbelief and panic. But what of the The young monk? He was motionless. Staring where his finger used to be, the monk had a profound look on his face. This was not a gaze of joy, sorrow, or even anger, but enlightenment.

I wrote this story based off a faint memory I have from an Asian Philosophy course I took in college. As soon as I finished typing the last word I thought I would try and see if I could find the real story by googling “Asian Philosophy Missing Finger.” It turns out the real story is a lot shorter and a bit different. It is a kōan, or dialogue used to test Zen student’s progress. You can read it here on Wikipedia. The master’s real title is Gutei One-finger.