It is said that every time someone asked a question, seeking to reveal the dharma, Juzhi would raise one finger to illuminate that dharma. To reveal the truth, one must use what is true. Yet is this raising of the one finger true at all times, in all situations, in response to all questions? If the ten thousand things are all dharmas, then how can we speak of true or not true, real or unreal? As Hongzhi says in the poem, “ultimately there are no mundane things before our eyes to see.” Whether this one finger was skillful teaching for Juzhi’s students is another question. We may have good medicine for someone’s illness, yet if they can’t or won’t receive it, then the illness persists.

What is this finger? If we get caught in what we know, then we cannot experience its truth, which is vast and limitless. A student asks a question of master Juzhi, a question that is all-consuming, that fills her body and mind, every pore and fibre. This is the “one determination” that she must know for herself. Juzhi raises his finger and, “an ocean of billions of worlds is drunk in the tip of a hair.” All the ideas of self and other fall away—there is nothing mundane before the eyes—and this finger illuminates heaven and earth. It’s not outside of oneself, it’s not a thing. This is a realm that words cannot reach, where there is no body and mind, no thought and feeling. The finger itself can’t be found; it reveals everything and yet, is just a finger. It dissolves all distinctions, yet includes every single thing in its uniqueness. This is how it is that Juzhi could raise his finger in response to every question.

The Five Ranks of Master Dongshan are a way of looking at reality in terms of the relationship between the world of the relative—the world of the senses, names and categories—and the absolute, that realm where there are no senses, there is no perceiver, no names or categories. These five ranks help to free us from attaching to any fixed position, and so realize the ocean of billions of worlds that is present within this tiny finger.

At the end of training, when students work with these five ranks through koan study, they need to take up one object and show how it contains and manifests each of the five ranks.

Now, Juzhi’s teaching could have become dull or stale, at least to his students. Master Caoshan says, “Juzhi’s understanding was crude—he only recognized one state, one perspective.” There’s also the potential to fall into thinking there’s something special about his finger. In the commentary, Master Xuansha says, “If I had seen him at that time I would have broken his finger off.” Why break off the finger? In examining this koan, you musn’t go looking to the finger for the answer. Xuansha would break it off to keep people from getting attached to and confused by it. This then gives us the vital energy today, in our own practice, to not get turned around by the teachings which point to the truth, so we can directly encounter the truth itself.

Xuanjiao adds, “Was Juzhi enlightened or not? If he was enlightened, why say his understanding was crude? If he wasn’t enlightened, yet he said he used his ‘one-finger’ Chan all his life without exhausting it. Then tell me, where does the essence of Caoshan’s meaning lie?” Before he died, Juzhi’s last words were, “I used the one-finger Chan of Tianlong all my life, and I was never able to exhaust it.” That’s another question that students have to answer—how is it that he could not exhaust it? Why could it not be exhausted? When you see into the truth of this finger, you see that nothing can be added, nothing can be taken away; vast and perfect, it is without end. How could it be exhausted?

Wansho comments, “When the tone is high, there are few who harmonize—you need to meet a connoisseur.” When the truth is difficult to realize, there are few who discover it for themselves. How does that harmonizing take place? How was it that Juzhi realized himself when Tianlong raised his finger?

When the seer and the seen, and the act of seeing is harmonized, when the many things return to the one true source, then it’s realized, because there’s nothing outside of it. That’s what practice is, the moment after moment practice of harmonizing, of being in accord—rather than trying to control the world and make it be in harmony. That’s not going to work. It already is in harmony. Practice is about getting out of the way. It’s the self that’s constantly creating waves, that’s constantly disturbing the harmony. When the seer and the seen disappear, the self disappears.