Cutting Off A Finger: Zen, Pulp Fiction, and the Logic of Storytelling

1.

The case of Juzhi’s “One finger Zen”

Zen Master Juzhi was known for answering all questions by holding up his index finger. One day, Juzhi was gone from the temple, and someone asked his young attendant about the nature of his master’s teachings. The boy held up one finger. When Juzhi heard about this after returning to the temple, he promptly called the boy to his side and cut off his finger. The boy fled the room screaming, but Juzhi called out to him. When the boy turned out around, Juzhi held up one finger. The boy became enlightened.

 

2.

Anyone who has taken a course in fiction writing or the novel has likely encountered the teaching device known as Freytag’s Pyramid. This formula — a diagram which really looks more like an upside-down checkmark — is often used to explain certain basic assumptions about all narratives, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Ulysses. It describes a story as a period of time that begins with a conflict, imbalance, or unfulfilled desire, proceeds as a series of attempts to address that initiating conflict, results in a climactic incident in which there is some successful overturning or reversal, and then depicts a world which is both changed and restored.

According to Freytag’s formula, the Juzhi koan is a “good” story: it involves risk, obstacles, sacrifice, tension, and, finally, return and reassurance. This is undoubtedly one reason why koans with a narrative component (often included in traditional biographies which follow their own rather strict narrative formula) are so popular in the teaching and transmission of Zen. Story-koans present a schema, a plan, a process, in which the student can locate him or herself. They become part of the language of the practice, part of the conversation between student and teacher. They are, in a sense, the promise that the Zen tradition makes to its followers.

Of course, the use of such story structures in Zen presents a logical problem: how can the inconceivable be represented through a repeated formula? If Zen practice involves abandoning all mental constructions, how can it be represented by means of a story? Which part is “Zen”, and which is “the story of Zen”? The standard answer for this has to do with upaya, or “skillful means”: the idea, omnipresent in Mahayana Buddhism, that the dharma has to be transmitted through whatever means are available. The ideal here is one of a kind of linguistic transparency: through the words (or through the story) to the meaning.

The problem with this assumption — which contemporary scholars of Buddhism have taken great pains to point out — is that stories are not simply conscious artifacts we can analyze and control, or choose to use or not; they are structures we accept and assimilate automatically and unconsciously[i]. The stories that have the most profound consequences in “real” life are often the ones we ourselves don’t always recognize. This applies not just to psychological consequences, but actual, physical harm. The story of Juzhi is one among many examples in Zen literature where a violent action, particularly an action with a sacrificial aspect, plays a key part in the completion of an enlightenment story.

It’s possible, of course, to say that the act of cutting off the finger is a metaphor, a symbol, a hypothetical. Given the nature of the historical record, there’s no way for us to say for certain whether Juzhi ever “really” cut off his attendant’s finger. And it has become routine for contemporary Zen students and teachers to “mime” violent acts (for example, saying “I give you thirty blows!”) instead of carrying them out. But metaphors and formulas — even dead metaphors — have a way of returning to life if we don’t consider them carefully. Our world abounds with cases of religious rhetoric distorted, or taken out of context, to justify acts of violence. The Zen tradition itself has been subject to this kind of manipulation, most notably, in recent memory, in Japan before and during the Second World War.[ii] The question of the relationship between religious narratives of violence — even ancient and seemingly benign ones — and human suffering is never an idle one, and certainly not in our historical moment.

In his translation of the Mumonkan anthology, the American Zen Master Robert Aitken offers the following commentary on the Juzhi koan:

The story of Juzhi cutting off the boy’s finger gives Zen a bad name in some quarters. Literalists turn to something milder. Yet look closely. Read religion as parable, as folklore, as poetic presentation of your own history and nature. Put yourself back on Grandmother’s ample lap, listening to her read “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and you’ll shiver again with those awesome words, “I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”[iii]

If we are supposed to “read religion as parable, as folklore, as a poetic presentation of your own nature,” can we — that is to say practitioners of Zen — accept a narrative like the Juzhi koan, while still remaining conscious of its fictiveness, its constructed-ness, which is also to say its potential for harm? And if the answer to the first question is yes, how can we incorporate this doubt, this holding-at-arm’s-length, into our practice itself?

 

3.

The English literary critic Frank Kermode had very similar questions in mind in 1965 when he wrote The Sense of an Ending, a study of how Christian narratives of the Apocalypse have transformed Western culture. And his answer, broadly speaking, was that once we have accepted that a story is “fiction” — something man-made and fallible — and not “myth” — the unimpeachable truth — we have essentially rejected religion itself:

Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. [iv]

Many aspects of the Zen tradition would support this argument: the emphasis on lineages of transmission stretching far into the past; the importance of fixed practice forms, likewise supposedly passed down from the “original” Zen masters of the Tang dynasty; indeed the very assumption that there exists “a special teaching outside the sutras, transmitted from mind to mind.” The essence of Zen practice, some would say— and have said — depends on absolute, unquestioning acceptance of, and submission to, these principles. Any attempt to regard the tradition as a series of fictions is merely conceptual thinking, a betrayal of the core teaching of more than a thousand years.

Kermode’s position — or some variant of it — has been dominant among scholars of religion for the last forty years. In the United States, for example, many in the current generation of professors of Buddhist studies openly reject the idea that one can study and practice Buddhism simultaneously.[v] In Japan, proponents of “critical Buddhism” have used new scholarship on early Buddhist texts to argue that virtually all forms of Buddhist practice are inauthentic and naïve. The result, at least in this country, has been that scholars and practitioners often regard one other with suspicion. (This is less true in Tibetan Buddhism, where the tradition of the practitioner/scholar is more ingrained, but even in that branch there has been notable friction between academics and religious teachers).

There is, however, a counter-argument, also arising out of Western scholarship of religion, from the French philosopher — and lifelong practicing Christian — Paul Ricoeur. At the conclusion of his book The Symbolism of Evil, Ricoeur argues that it is a grave mistake to assume that because we have lost “the immediacy of belief” we have lost the capacity to believe at all:

If we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men [sic] aim at a second naïvete in and through criticism. In short, it is through interpreting that we can hear again. (351)[vi]

Indeed, Ricoeur argues, it’s impossible to say that we can understand “the great symbolisms of the sacred” if we don’t, in a sense, believe in them. Unless we have some access to belief, or some sense of what “sacredness” is, we will have no way of appreciating what sets mythological or sacred texts apart from other texts. “Never does the interpreter get near to what his text says,” he argues, “unless he lives in the aura of the meaning he is inquiring after.”

Ricoeur’s genius here lies in his ability to see the “modern predicament,” or its auto-immune response, the “postmodern condition,” not as an advantage or disadvantage in comparison to what we imagine of previous eras but as a gift and an opportunity not to be discarded. Rather than tearing his hair out about the loss of sacredness in an era of hermeneutic suspicion, he demands that we recognize a new kind of sacredness in suspicion if we want to truly understand religious texts. Otherwise we have no access to the “aura” these texts depend on. Ricoeur calls this state of sacredness-in-suspicion “postcritical.”

“Postcritical,” it needs to be said, is not the same as “uncritical.” The postcritical state is marked by an absence of longing or nostalgia for the imagined innocence of the past. It does not dwell on the poverty of the modern or postmodern. It does not idealize pure emotion or intuitive mental powers or Romantic notions of artistic or spiritual genius. Most of all, however, the postcritical state is distinguished by its alterity: its lack of wholeness or absoluteness. Once we reach the postcritical state, we have absorbed a certain capability for self-doubt into our experience of the sacred or the beautiful. We have also reached a state in which we accept that doubt is, in its own way, sacred.

 

4.

Let’s say that we look at the story of Juzhi and his attendant with a postcritical perspective — accepting that it is a fiction, rather than treating it as a myth. We might begin by acknowledging that many aspects of the story point to a legendary or apocryphal origin, including the distance between the supposed time of the event and its recording  (several centuries) and the way the story corresponds to the structure of a fairy tale, including the repetition of the gesture and the quick denouement of the boy’s enlightenment. Steven Heine, who has written several critical studies of the Zen koan tradition, suggests that the story can only be appreciated in light of the popular Buddhist practice (which continues to this day) of burning off the tip of a finger as a signal of one’s commitment to the Buddha Way. This practice, he implies, makes the cutting off of the finger less shocking to the story’s intended audience of monks who were used to extreme acts of self-mortification, and, occasionally, similar acts performed by a teacher or superior.[vii]

On the other hand, acknowledging our own cultural biases, we might still insist on rejecting at least some of the implications of the story. Whether or not we see Juzhi’s action as a form of abuse or an act of compassion, it is worth noting that the potential for abuse always exists. Keeping in mind the recent history of abusive relationships between Zen teachers and students, especially in lay contexts, we might even say that the Juzhi story should be a warning to teachers to question their own limits as to the application of “skillful means.”

It’s tempting to say that this tradition of self-criticism is indeed already present in the practice of Zen; that is, that the supposedly anti-authoritarian nature of Zen provides a self-correcting mechanism in which destructive, abusive, or egocentric behavior is recognized and atoned for. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence both from contemporary and historical sources that this self-correcting mechanism did not and does not always work.[viii] And, in any event, critiquing the story is only the first step in the process. Ultimately we have to find a way to live with it, to understand its hypothetical value, even as we hold it at arms’ length. As Aitken Roshi tells us, we have to accept it as a story, as a piece of fiction, a parable. We have to read it the way we would a piece of secular literature — a book, or even, I would argue, a movie.

 

5.

Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction is rarely, if ever, described as a film about a religious quest or as a narrative of enlightenment, and it’s not difficult to see why. A comedy containing so many images of gratuitous violence and gore — a teenager’s brains splattered across the back window of a car, a young woman’s lips turning blue in the middle of a heroin overdose, a mobster raped in a basement dungeon — repels description in redemptive terms. The broadest cultural interpretation of Tarantino’s two early films — Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs — is that they made film violence into a comic postmodern spectacle, a purely aesthetic act that had no room for the pain of the victims or the sensibilities of a literal-minded audience.

Pulp Fiction, however, whether we like it or not, is structured as a narrative of enlightenment, through the experiences of Jules, the hit man played by Samuel L. Jackson. Early in the movie, in the middle of one such execution, he and his partner Vincent (John Travolta) are nearly killed when a hidden assailant bursts from behind a door and fires several shots at them at point-blank range, all of which miss and strike the wall behind them. Vincent sees this as a lucky accident; Jules insists it is divine intervention. As they flee the scene of the killing, with the young survivor who was their informer in the back seat of the car, Jules announces his intention to go into retirement as soon as the job is done, and it is in the course of this conversation that Vincent, in his incredulity, accidentally shoots the informer. Later, at the very end of the movie, while holding a petty thief at gunpoint, Jules announces his realization:

Well there’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never gave much thought what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See now I’m thinkin’, maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man.  And Mr. 9 Millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This expression of epiphany, if we want to call it that, is intimately intertwined with the senselessness of the killing that has preceded it. There is something pornographic about Jules’ use of the words righteous and shepherd not two hours after he has participated in a St. Valentine’s Day-style massacre of his boss’s enemies. At the same time, the senselessness of the killing is what makes Jules’ redemption possible. This final speech is one of the few moments in Pulp Fiction where one character speaks seriously and directly to another. That seriousness — that sense of purpose — is paid for, so to speak, with the deaths of all of Jules’ previous victims.

Quentin Tarantino is certainly not the first storyteller to propose that, in a secular universe, the only way for a person — almost always a man — to achieve real nobility and self-sufficiency is through acts of violence. What sets Pulp Fiction apart is its stubborn refusal to follow the linear logic that frames earlier films in the same mode, such as Miller’s Crossing or Unforgiven or The Searchers. Whatever one can say about the shootings and stabbings and acts of torture and mayhem in Pulp Fiction, no one can say that they are truly necessary or important — or if they are, their importance itself is purely accidental. In a different kind of movie Jules would have always meant what he said when he quoted Ezekiel before dispatching one of his victims.

 

6.

Pulp Fiction, as I’ve already noted, makes a mockery of the causal relationship between violence and transcendence. There is no way of asking the question “Was all that killing worth it?” with a straight face. This is a lesson that we can, and should, apply to the case of Juzhi. The implict assumption in this koan is that Juzhi’s servant boy has usurped his authority by presenting his master’s teaching without authorization; he holds up his finger automatically, without understanding what the gesture means. Juzhi’s two gestures — cutting off the boy’s finger, then raising his own — are both a punishment and a reward. Pain, in this case, equals attainment. Pain equals the truth.

But why should this necessarily be the case?

One way we can distinguish between the precritical and postcritical states is to contrast two different ideas of causality. This may not be so much an intellectual shift as an acknowledgment of what we already know in practice. Anyone who has embarked on a religious program knows that the “path” metaphor implies a kind of linear logic of a course of study that is only ever approximately true. One’s religious vocation wavers like any other kind of commitment; there are moments of great intensity and clarity interspersed with periods of doubt and slackness and simple disinterest. This is a human truth that virtually all religious rhetoric, formal and informal, Eastern and Western, nomian and antinomian, reactionary or reformist, tries to suppress. In fact, we might say that the more antinomian and anti-clerical a tradition is, the more likely it will become obsessed with linearity.

Contrast this with a different notion of causality: the logic of accumulation, the logic of patience. In this model of narrative one relinquishes (at least temporarily) the burden of interpreting events according to a predetermined causal pattern. As in Pulp Fiction, things just happen. Several chronological or causal sequences may be operating simultaneously. Time may move forwards as well as backwards. A profound realization may be accompanied by a loud fart. Time is allotted for boredom or for intrusions that fit no pattern at all.

This shouldn’t mean that one of these logic(s) supersedes the other. Chronological causal sequences, constructed though they may be, are extremely useful, and the same is obviously true of linear narratives. Stories, like lives, begin and end. We are conditioned to seek out radical and transforming and absolute changes and define ourselves, to some extent, by them. We need to pay attention to this desire for radical transformation and be wary of it, lest it become self-fulfilling.

 

7.

The haeindo, written by the great ninth-century monk Uisang, is a poem written in the form of a series of four looping squares that form one large diagram or mandala. Haein means “Ocean Seal.” The haeindo poem, sometimes translated as “The Song of Dharma Nature,” is essentially a brief summary of one of Mahayana Buddhism’s longest and most complex texts, the Flower Ornament Sutra, which describes the interpenetrated and interdependent nature of the universe. In a characteristically Korean way, Uisang boils the intricate philosophy of this sutra down to a relatively simple formula:

In one particle of dust

is contained the ten directions.

And so it is

with all particles of dust.

Incalculably long eons

are equivalent to a single moment of thought.9

Uisang’s text is, of course, arranged in a linear pattern, and is meant to be read from beginning to end (though each line essentially functions as a complete syllogism, making use of the syntactic flexibility of literary Chinese). On the other hand, this same flexibility makes the poem remarkably tricky to read. One can easily veer off the track and see a possible unintended meaning in two adjoining characters. This, too, is part of Uisang’s point. Each line depends on the whole of the poem, and the whole poem depends on each line.

This may seem to take us a very long way from Pulp Fiction, but if we are to follow Aitken Roshi’s advice — “ Read religion as parable, as folklore, as poetic presentation of your own history and nature”— then perhaps we need to become comfortable with this kind of analogy and the meanings that flow from it in both directions. The point is not to exhaust ourselves in striking a balance between skepticism and “pure” belief, and not to insulate ourselves from violence and its consequences, but to reserve a space, so to speak, in which all questions, and all forms of doubt, are allowed, and to designate that intermediary realm as something sacred.

 


[i] See Lopez, Donald S., The Story of Buddhism. U of Chicago Press, 2000.

[ii] See Victoria, Brian Daizen, Zen at War, Boston: Rowan and Littlefield, 1998; Sharf, Robert, “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” in Lopez, Donald S., Curators of the Buddha, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1995.

[iii] Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1991.

[iv] Kermode, Frank. The Sense of An Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford, 1965.

[v] See Sharf, Robert, Coming To Terms With Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise. U of Hawaii Press, 2002.

[vi] Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

[vii] Heine, Steven. Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.

[viii] See Fields, Rick, How the Swans Came to the Lake, Boston: Shambhala, 1988.

9 Odin, Steve, Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism, SUNY Press, 1982.