Basho’s Frog Poem and Gutei’s Finger

Old pond
A frog leaps in –
Sound of the water

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobi komu
Mizu no oto

Perhaps the most well known haiku.

Often said to embody all that is Zen in it, the old world and now are linked by the sound of the water.

I wrote a poem which goes like this:

There is no old pond.
There is no frog that leaps in.
No sound, no water.

This is a pale imitation of the style of the old masters like Mumonkan or Hakuin. Our fixation with the old pond, the frog and the sound will ultimately undo us. To reach enlightenment it is necessary to forget – so to speak – these things which belong to the mind’s illusion.

There is a koan – Case #3 in the Mumonkan – that is similar:

“The Zen master Gutei used to raise one finger as a gesture of Zen. Once a visitor asked Gutei boy attendant what does his master teach. The Boy raised his finger. Master Gutei hearing this cut off the boys finger. In pain, the boy ran crying. The boy called by his master turned, only to see the master riase his finger. At that moment the boy was enlightened.”

I doubt Gutei really cut his finger off and so the boy was also crying in mock. But doubtless was his enlightenment.

The point is Gutei’s teaching has nothing to do with the finger or the gesture. So the boy’s raising of the finger has no meaning, no power. It is as ordinary as Gutei’s gesture. But Gutei’s gesture has all the ability to bring about enlightenment, as does Basho’s poem, but no the boy’s finger.

Why should this be so? If you can say then you have glimpsed something.

One further note: the visitor to Gutei no doubt was pushing the boy. He had seen something in him. He knew he needed one more nudge to be pushed over the edge. In other words this was no ordinary visitor but someone with insight. Zen koans and their dialogues are not accidental. They are carefully orchestrated for the benefit of the student, to bring about enlightenement in him or her.

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