Don’t point that finger at me!….

Don’t point that finger at me!….

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!

10 thoughts on “Don’t point that finger at me!….

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts – I especially like the observation re language in translation: I’ve lost count of the the number of conversations I’ve had with my husband when he’s said ‘oh, so that’s a completely different meaning to how we normally use the word’.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me. If you have ever spent any time around someone who is bilingual you will see that even if the speak And use English perfectly they may not realize some of the conotaions that certain words have or subtle things that that word may imply even if it is not listed as a meaning in the dictionary. That is because those implications are learned by experience, not from a dictionary. After returning from Japan after living there for almost 8 years I would be watching a Japanese movie with English subtiles. When the subtitle would come up I dont know how many times I would say “that isnt what they just said, it is not even close”! So translating is dubious at best. 😊

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  2. Hi. Thanks for this indeed. A difficult oft touchy Subject. Mainly for Westerners as noted. Tugged at memories of a students younger days. i, Shiro that is. After passing a “test” i excitedly asked ” …How much do I know now.?. Straightfaced replied vis a “…dot…” on a blackboard and advised “…Go look in the Mirror. Till that Spot you are…”. Yep. I still look. For that. Damn spot.!. Thanks for your insights and finger pointed thoughts here. WE Westies here Really are babes in those Woods. Agreed. Appreciate the share. The Tale told. Well told. Also. The effort. Take Care… Gotta go. Check on Spot. Again…

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    1. Thanks for commenting! It is nice to get feed back so that I know if I am actually getting across the points I aam trying to make. I am not saying anything derogatory about people from the west. I know that generally we approach Buddhism a bit differently than say someone from AsiaAsia. I know this because I am from the west and went through this same thought process. I am just hoping to help people realize these things quicker than I did.

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      1. Hi. Pleasure to chat with a solid Researcher. And Writer. Nice approach. You articles done well as far as i am aware. I read a lot and appreciate the writers individual thinking not just rehash stuff endlessly. Your Questions were/are abrupt but pointed. Then explained. Good strong arguments backed up when reqd. The Sentiment… I understand too. Thanks for that and the insights. Take Care.

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  3. Thank you so much for this essay/article/blog. I doubt that it is very popular to say that I do my best to live by the philosophy of Buddhism (not any of the various religions that stem from Buddhism), but I also feel that I love Jesus Christ. However, I do make this claim. In reference to this article’s topic, when reading the bible I can find all kinds of examples of what I feel are contradictions and other examples of what I feel are discriminatory beliefs that I doubt are beliefs of God: One such example is when Paul says that a woman shall not utter one word in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). When I come across these conflicts I remember Bruce Lee saying, “It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not look at the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!” To me, the bible is not the infallible word of God, but rather it is a “finger” which is pointing towards Christ. I do not expect anyone else to buy into my dual system of beliefs, but I believe that Christ paid for the sins of our past, however he cannot save us from our own evil doings because he will not interfere with free will: We must choose to repent, and we must choose to do the right things in life. In that manner, we save ourselves. Thank you for taking the time to read about my perspective: It is sincerely appreciated.

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    1. Thank you very much! I am glad you enjoyed it. I am always really happy to get feedback because it helps me see if I am getting my points across. I think it is great that you are an open minded Christian. It is very unfortunate that most people don’t realize that there was many different Christian groups with very different views of what Christianity meant in the early Christian history.

      I am not against Christianity at all although at times it may seem that way. I don’t agree with the very narrow hard-line view of many Christians in the the west. The only reason that I mention Christianity often is that most (but not all) of my readers come from the west. That means that when they are trying to understand Buddhism there are likely coming into it with a Christian point of reference. This can cause problems when they are trying to understand Buddhist concepts.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

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