Gutei lived around the ninth century, his dates of birth and death are not available, since his real name is not known. Gutei was just a nickname.
In the time of Gutei, the Chinese government persecuted Buddhism, destroying 40,000 Buddhist temples and cancelling the ordination status of 260,000 monks and nuns. This took place in 845 C.E.; the tyrannical rule lasted for twenty months. As a young monk, Gutei lost his temple home. He hid himself in a remote mountain, begging for his food secretly among the villagers.
Gutei lived as a hermit, sitting all alone, practicing zazen in a little hut up in the mountains. He practiced very intensely, and entered deep into the great silence of samadhi.
One evening, a nun – by the name Jissai which can be translated as “True World” or “True Encounter” – who was on a pilgrimage, appeared at his hut. She walked into the hut, where Gutei sat in zazen, walked around his seat three times, (the circumambulation is a ritual found in many traditional societies, and for Zen Buddhism this is a way of self-presentation done by a pilgrim to a teacher, followed by three deep bows and other procedures), banged her staff on the ground, and said: “If you can say a word of Zen, I’ll take my hat off and stay.”
"To say something" is in Zen terminology to say something to reveal the mind. The nun’s question was intended to probe Gutei’s ability to understand the truth. Gutei didn’t know what to say, so the nun again walked around him three times and repeated her challenge.
Again, Gutei sat tongue-tied, unable to come up with a “word of Zen” that could adequately express what he experienced in his zazen.
She repeated her performance one more time, but all she could get was the same silence. Disgusted, she turned on her heels and left.
This encounter completely troubled poor Gutei. Despite all his years of deep meditation, he had failed the test. Why couldn’t he come up with a “word of Zen?” A chasm had opened up between all the words he knew perfectly well and the mysterious “Zen word” the nun demanded, and he fell right in. Gutei decided he better stop sitting by himself and seek out a teacher.
But that night he had a dream in which he was told not to leave his hut and his teacher would soon appear. The next day, Tenryu arrived. Gutei told him the whole story of how he was humiliated by the nun. Having listened to it all, Tenryu simply raised one finger, whereupon Gutei had his realization.
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