Mind, Spirituality

The Meaning of the Finger Pointing to the Moon

Hotei pointing with the finger to the moon
The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas i do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriach responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”

Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon is the essence here. But what does this mean on a deeper level? How does it relate to todays everyday life? How can we understand the meaning in an useful manner?

The laughing Buddha Hotei is pointing to the moon, who was a monk who lived during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923 AD) of China. Contentment and happiness being his defining attributes, Hotei has a cheerful face and a big belly.

Analyzing the pointer is pointless

… said Eckhart Tolle, yet we tend to analyze the pointers without noticing it. If we are discussing about whether something is good for us or not or especially if we come to a philosophical debate, we are discussing the validity of models and concepts. We can also go out and experience something directly.

It’s the same with spirituality.

Spirituality is all about experiencing and the truth itself. So this post here is of course a finger pointing. The words are only pointing. So as long as we are pointing and discussing about the different pointers, we are not experiencing. The experience of something is the connection with something, the feeling one with something, without labeling.

What happens in philosophy and in religion again and again is the intense discussion about the pointers. How can it be that there is a discussion about one thing that is true? It is one thing right? It can only be because we represent something differently, which are different pointers. Then it is easy to discuss and disagree about them.

The map is not the territory

The map is not the territory is just another way to point to the same thing. The map is the concept of what we have in the mind about something. It’s a belief, an image or a thought-pattern. We use this map in the same way as we use a city-map to find a location. If the map is correct, we will find our location. If it is slightly incorrect, we have to correct it by new knowledge, optimize it. If it is completely incorrect or we move to another city, we have to replace the map altogether. What is happening is that we changed the map. And this is happening all the time.

Another map is the self-image or we may call it the ego. It is everything we saved about ourselves. It is the map of ourselves and we act from it. We want to improve our self-image and we use our intellectual abilities to do so: we get our desires and we set goals and work towards them. The map called the ego is a very useful map that we constantly create ourselves. But here is the important thing: it is still a map.

It’s nice to have a map, as long as you know it’s a map

Which means:

1. The map can change : which means our self-concept (the ego, who we think we are) can change and this is the basis of personal development. This changing map includes our thoughts, beliefs and actions: the whole world-view and the self-image.

2. The map is not the territory : I am not the ego, my self-image. You are not your self-image, or in other words: You and I are not who we think we are; think in the literally sense of the word: thoughts (and all other concepts) are the map, not the territory.

The important step to Spiritual Awakening is dropping the map and experiencing what is without the map.

But, (for me at least) this means not to remove the map for all time. I need the map to function in the world and to relate to everything. So I create maps and use maps in a very intense way, in the best way possible. But there is one difference: I dis-identified the map from the territory. So I know that my self-image is my self-image but not the self.

Ken Wilber called the process “Transcend and include”. Or as Genpo Roshi put it: the reason we are able to transcent the ego but still use it as a human being is that we know the Being side of the Human Being as well as the Human Side: check my posting about Personal Power vs. The Power of Now for more.

This is a Zen story I found on the website Pointing To The Moon :

“When Zen Master Nan-chuan saw his student Ma-tsu diligently practicing meditation hour after hour, he sensed a certain effort and ambition in the young monk’s demeanor, so he sneaked up behind him and asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to become a Buddha,” Ma-tsu replied proudly. Nan-chuan then picked up a stone and began rubbing it against a spare tile from the monastery floor. Hearing the sound, Ma-tsu asked, “What are you doing?” Said Nan-chuan: “I’m trying to make a mirror.” Ma-tsu had an awakening.

And it goes on:

Everything is just as it is! Ma-tsu is Ma-tsu, the tile is the tile, and you are you, just as you are. There’s no Buddha apart from this fundamental truth, and any attempt to achieve some special state of mind just leads you away from who and what you already are. In the direct approach to truth …, the direct recognition of your true nature is available in every instant, on or off the cushion, whether you meditate or not. You merely need to “take the backward step that turns your light inward to illuminate the Self,” as Dogen Zenji said.” – Stephan Bodian