Fingers and Moons

Fingers and Moons

(25 August 1984)

This isn’t a formal lecture at all, it’s just like a few pebbles thrown at a window to wake someone up who’s sleeping inside. If they don’t wake up, you throw some more. It’s in the hope that one or two will wake one or two people up, temporarily at least, as some of them have woken me up, temporarily at least, that I pass on some of them. It’s called Fingers and Moons, and this relates to a phrase, the finger pointing to the moon. This is generally illustrated by a finger pointing to a full moon, which everyone can see. It’s rather pointless. Really it arose from seeing the new moon.

As an example, there was a fasting austerity in India called the ant body. An ant’s body, as you know, begins big like that and comes down very thin and gets bigger again. Well, you started on the full moon day with 14 mouthfuls of food and water. Then each day you reduced it by one mouthful. When it got to the dark night, you had nothing. Then when the new moon appeared, you could have your first only one mouthful of water or food, and then you gradually increased it until you got up to 14 mouthfuls a day. It’s not much if you’ve ever tried it.

Seeing the new moon then was quite important and it’s quite difficult to make out the little thread. As the Chinese phrase says, with a deaf man you point out the gate by pointing with your finger. With a blind man you point out the gate by knocking on it. There are different means. The fingers implied different means of seeing something. If we think, “Oh, there is only one means,” then we may be limiting ourselves in view, but as a rule, it’s best to practice one of the means.

The one other thing is this, it’s worth experimenting pointing your finger at the moon one night and just seeing what actually happens. People can write a book on fingers pointing to the moon. It’s quite clear they’ve never tried it because what actually happens is, if your sight is normal, you point a finger towards the moon and you focus on the finger, then the finger is clear, but you will see two vague moons beyond it, they’re not at all clear. The finger is brilliantly clear. Then you make a leap, you change the focus to the moon. Then you will see the moon brilliantly clear. The finger, you will see two transparent fingers.

It’s worth trying this as an illustration of our practice. These illustrations are not given for nothing, and sometimes they’re very precise as to the details. When we’re following a pointing finger, the pointing finger can become very, very clear, but the goal can be very vague. The time comes we have to take a leap beyond that very clear finger to the goal, it’s a change of focus, not of direction. Then the means we were using become almost transparent, the moon becomes clear.

Now there are people who say with considerable pride, “I don’t want fingers or methods. I want to see the moon directly. Directly. To see the moon directly. No methods or pointing.” In fact, they don’t see it. It’s easy to say. There are others who can be lost with the finger. You can study the finger so elaborately, you can put rings on it, but you forget what its purpose was. The forms are the methods and they’re very important as a pointing finger, but if we forget what they are for and they become, so to speak, the goal in their own right, then our progress is liable to stop and because it stops, it will retrogress.

One Zen teacher talks about the reverence to a priest. Would you give that same reverence if he was a well-known swindler or seller of fake charms? If you think it obligatory, even when you know and he knows that the situation is false and that your bow is not a genuine reverence, what’s the situation? Well in Western history, it would be the situation of a particular philosopher who was arrested and punished for not applauding Nero’s verses sufficiently enthusiastically. He failed to clap loud enough for the emperor’s verses. This was a completely false situation in which Nero’s subjects were driven.

Now, as an example of form and reverence at one of the great temples, Eihei-ji, there’s a lineage from the present abbot right back to the Buddha and the tradition of the sect, which is an old one and goes back to Dōgen, is that the lineage must be read before the altar every day at the service. Well, there are certainly over 100 names on that lineage now, and each name has to be accompanied with a particular form of reverential salutation. So that if you really read them like that it’s would quite easily take a couple of hours. Well, people haven’t got the time for this now, but the names must be read. What they do, they divide the list up in to four, say 25 on each. Then four priests come together in front of the altar and they read the four lists simultaneously. The names are read, the tradition is preserved, but at least the service gets a move on.

Now it’s very easy with forms to follow forms and feel one gets support from the forms and the forms support each other. I may not feel very reverential but when I see the other people bowing so reverentially, then I feel supported and encouraged to do it myself. Supposing they feel the same way. Hakuin compares this to trees whose branches interlace. You get a whole wood of them. Now they are holding each other up. Even when the roots are withering, the tree still stand up. It’s like a table with many legs. There’s no depth of roots at all, and the trees don’t put out much in the way of green or fruit or flower, but they hold each other up. Then one day storm comes and everything goes down. When the wind blows, an individual tree can only remain up by depending on his neighbours. They can only remain up depending on others. If one is blown, there’s a strain on the whole community.

In a healthy growth as Hakuin says, when each tree has strong individual roots, then they protect each other. The trees on the North side have their own roots, they can stand up. When the North wind comes, they protect the others. They’re not leaning on the others, they’re standing by their own roots and they protect the others. When the wind comes from the South, they in turn are protected by the others, but the trees have their own roots. He uses this illustration as saying that when the forms begin to become more and more elaborate, more and more magnificent and more and more apparently reverential, it can be just interlaced trees holding each other up.



© Trevor Leggett

Titles in this series are:

Part 1: Fingers and Moons

Part 2: Cherry blossoms

Part 3: Fingers are the methods

Part 4: Imitations do not lead to anything

Part 5: The trees on Mount Ibuka