Most people that have any interest in Buddhism have come across the Zen story about the finger pointing at the moon. If you are into martial arts movies you would have heard this story at the beginning of “Enter the Dragon” when Bruce lee recounts it. This story originated in the Surangama sutra, an important sutra in the Zen tradition, in reference to Ananda’s “True or Enlightened mind”. To paraphrase, the Zen version of the story:
A nun was telling Huineng that although she had studied a particular sutra for a very long time she did not understand its meaning. Huineng told her he was illiterate and said for her to read it to him and maybe he could tell her the meaning. The nun replied “How can you understand the meaning if cannot even read the characters”? Huineng told the nun that the truth has nothing to do with words. Words are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger can lead you to the moon but the finger is not the moon itself. In order to see the moon (Truth, Reality, and Enlightenment) in all its brilliance you have to look beyond the finger to what it is pointing to. Along the same lines there are other stories that compare the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) to a raft or boat. You use a raft to get to the other side of the river but once you have crossed the raft is no longer needed because the raft is not a destination but a means to get there. Since it is our nature to become attached to things, including the Dharma, this is a hard concept for us to grasp. From our perspective religious teachings should be revered and treasured, not discarded after we use them.
Since most of the people from the west (including myself) come from a Christian background (even if you did not practice Christianity it is infused in our culture) we are used to approaching religious literature from a very different perspective. Since the words of the Bible are seen as the word of God or at least as divinely inspired they are thought of as the teaching of God or in other words the truth itself. Taken even farther there may be some form of eternal punishment if we choose to not follow these words. This causes many problems in the western Buddhist world. Not only does it cause the Dharma to be misunderstood or practiced incorrectly, you can also see that some western Buddhist groups have a sort of fundamentalist approach to the teaching the Dharma. Too many of us come to Buddhism with all sorts of preconceived notions (I know I did) but with no real understanding of its core teachings at all. But at the very same time this does not stop us from wanting to dictate what these teachings mean.
You can see this to be true when you hear one Buddhist judging that some other Buddhist is not a real Buddhist because they saw them have a drink or eat meat. The idea of not doing these things is volintarty and not some sort of commandment. The precepts as they are called are a teaching in and of themselves. You may even hear one particular Buddhist group saying that they are the only one teaching “True Buddhism”. How many times have you heard Christians saying things like this? I run into them all the time online claiming that Buddhism is a false teaching and even a evil one. Then they go on to claim what Buddhism teaches, which is generally entirely false, then try to use these ignorant notions to defend their argument. This way of thinking is just western baggage and have no place in Buddhism at all. All that thinking like this does is lead you away from the true meaning of the Dharma and you become fixated on the “Finger”! How far from the Dharma do you think you will end up if your understanding of the finger that is pointing is incorrect?
Most of us belong to various Buddhist groups that all follow some set of practices or emphasize some set of teachings. While this may seem to be like going to church Buddhist practice is a totally an individual pursuit. There is no one that can save you. Being in the presence of others who are on the same path is helpful but no other being can achieve an understanding for you that you need to achieve yourself. That is why Buddhism is referred to as a practice not just just a intellectual exercise, the teachings must be experienced to glean the real meaning.
You see the big problem besides our background is language. Words simply do not mean exactly the same thing to each person we only assume they do. Words are pregnant with individual experience that is unique to each individual. If you doubt this pick a word and ask five people individually what that word means. You will get five different “Well it sort of is like….” There definitions will not be exactly the same, just an approximation based on their own experience using and hearing that word being used. This is amplified when words are translated because words are also pregnant with inferences that belong to the culture they are being used in. If I have not seen you for a while and we meet and the first thing I say is “Hi there, you look fatter than the last time I saw you” you would likely be very hurt and offended. In Asia this very thing is not uncommon. To the people here saying that you are fatter is not an insult at all, it is just an observation, maybe just stating a fact! Calling someone fat just does not have the same connotations as it does in the west. This difference in connotations means that being called fat in the west or in Asia are just not the same thing even though in both cases we are being called fat! Another example is that if they see something that looks messy the word they use translates as ugly. So in the west if a kid comes up and shows you a picture they have drawn that is not very neat and you tell them it looks ugly they will most likely cry! These are sort of silly examples but they do prove the point that the definition of words is not as exact as we would like to think. On top of both of these we are dealing with concepts that are foreign to us and our way of thinking. There isn’t a direct translation of the word Dhukkha in English. It is most often translated as Suffering. Suffering has many different connotations but generally gives the impression some sort of physical pain. The closest translation of Dhukkha is more similar to a constant un-satisfactoriness that we feel that leads to mental suffering. Longing for things we do not have or a fear of losing what we have. We feel we never have enough money, food, love, or sex but no matter how much we acquire these things we still long for more.
A couple paragraphs above I said “no other being can achieve an understanding for you that you need to achieve yourself.” In order to communicate we need to use language. But in using language we can easily lead someone astray. In Buddhism there is the teaching of Anatta that states that our notion of our “self” is false, in fact there is no “self” and therefore no “other” either! Add to that there is nothing in Buddhism to “achieve” and in trying to explain a Buddhist concept I have just told you something totally false in a Buddhist sense. Sorry about that! 😦
Buddhism is about understanding a reality that is beyond what words can explain. They can only lead you to an understanding that you must experience for yourself. So when reading the Buddhist Sutras or other writings we have to always have in mind that these words are just pointing the way to something that they cannot described directly. Although in the Zen story Huineng was referring to words of the sutra the finger pointing doesn’t stop there. The entire Dharma is not a disjointed collection of teachings. Every teaching is completely interwoven and connected to every other teaching. And collectively they are just one giant finger pointing us to a true understanding of reality.
It goes even further than that. Next time you go to a temple look around. You will see wall hangings, paintings, statues, candles, and ritual implements. You will likely hear bells, chanting, and sutras being recited. You will smell flowers and incense burning. Every single one of these things have meaning and it is no accident that they are infusing all of your senses. In every one there is a teaching, a part of the Dharma. Next time you sit in front of your home altar and place some flowers, lite a candle and some incense, strike a bell, and look at your Buddha image realize that they are all talking to you. They are all a teaching that points to something bigger, something that any one of them cannot show you by itself. In Buddhism everything is a finger pointing at the moon and that moon is the reality of the “self”. So the finger is pointing at you!