In Zen, people often use the phrase “finger pointing to the moon.” It is my impression that this has become a meaningless cliché. Does anyone understand what this really means? What is this “moon” that the finger is pointing to?
This is one of the most important phrases in Zen meditation. You should not take it as a meaningless cliché. To be able to clearly distinguish ‘finger’ from ‘the moon’ is enlightenment. The moon means the true-Self, Buddha or Emptiness that is the ultimate goal which we Zen practitioners should pursue. ‘Finger pointing’ refers to all actions of teaching including speaking and acting, or language and action. This means that when words are used to express the true-Self, we pay our attention not to the true-Self but only to the words themselves that are pointing to the true-Self. Words are only a kind of vessel in which to put contents, not the contents themselves.
For example, when a master was asked what the true-Self was, he answered, “A piece of cake.”. ‘A piece of cake’ is just a finger pointing to the true-Self. This is like raising your hand in order to have your attendance known to your teacher when your teacher calls the register in class.
The purpose of raising your hand is not to show what your hand is like but to get your attendance, your existence in the classroom known. Saying ‘a piece of cake’ is like raising your hand. If you understand this writing only as knowledge, you are also looking at the finger instead of the moon.
Student: “What is the moon?”
Student: “What is a pointing finger?”
All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway
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