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Hongzhi’s verse reads, Old Juzhi’s finger-tip Chan. Thirty years he used it without wearing it out. Truly he has the unconventional technique of a person of the Way. It’s unconventional because throughout his life, Juzhi used the raising of the finger as his essential teaching. For it to have been true and effective, this raising of the finger must not have fallen into patterns, it must not have become a rule. Juzhi had to be fresh and alive each time he raised the finger; it had to continue to be a true and appropriate response to the student and the question. Once it becomes a rule, it’s not alive any more, and that’s true for any aspect of our practice, it’s not about rules. Even though we live within rules—in the Monastery and in the world—when we become defined by the rule we die to the experience of our lives, then there is no practice and there is no way to hear the teaching.

Ultimately there are no mundane things before his eyes to see. This is the key to the koan. “Mundane” means separate and distinct from ourselves. The moment we identify and name things based on our likes and dislikes, they become mundane, and we cease to see them intimately. When parents see their children playing with other kids, do they see them as individuals? Or do they see them as a reflection of themselves, of their own success as parents, of their self worth, how they measure up against the other kids…? How do we leap out and see things as they are—not as what we think they are?

His realization most simple, the device, the more broad. An ocean of billions of worlds is drunk in the tip of a hair. What Juzhi realized is what is present in each and every moment; it is direct, clear and unadorned. His “device”—this finger—encompasses the whole universe, swallowing up all distinctions like a vast ocean. Fish and dragons limitless—into whose hands do they fall? Take care, Mr. Ren, holding the fishing pole!” There’s an old Chinese story about Mr. Ren, a man who made a huge fishing pole with a large hook and a stout cord. He baited his line with fifty calves and threw it into the ocean, waiting for a fish to bite. Every day he pulled up the line without catching anything until finally an enormous fish chomped down on the hook. As Mr. Ren struggled against the mighty creature, the fish thrashed in the water sending up huge mountains of waves. Finally, he landed the fish, cooked it and prepared to eat it. As he was doing this he realized there was so much meat, he would be able to feed the whole village. He called them all together and had a great feast until everyone was satisfied.

This great fish—that satisfies all hunger—is this very dharma. It is our practice and our buddha nature. When we realize it ourselves we see that everyone’s belly is already full, and yet we live with pain in our stomach, believing we are hungry. The work of the great teachers and bodhisattvas is to help all of us to see that the world is not broken, and that if we can learn to harmonize, to let that harmony naturally arise, then the world is quite a nice place. People are naturally intelligent and kind. We see that every single conflict is created. It is fundamentally a complication in the mind. This is what it means to practice, to follow a path with heart. It means we have to practice it with our heart, with our whole being, but the path itself has to have heart too. But that doesn’t come from anywhere else. That’s why the question of whose hands does this fall into is most important. To practice that question is to truly give life, to awaken. So let’s take care of it, let’s take care of the whole thing, for our families, for our children


Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot and resident teacher of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.