The finger pointing to the moon

This is generally illustrated by a finger pointing to a full moon that everyone can see

The talk is called ‘Fingers and Moons’ and relates to the phrase ‘the finger pointing to the moon’. This is generally illustrated by a finger pointing to a full moon that everyone can see. It is really rather pointless. But the saying actually arose from people trying to see the new moon.

This is not a formal lecture at all; it is like a few pebbles thrown at a window to wake up someone who is sleeping inside. If the sleeper doesn’t wake up, then you throw some more pebbles. The hope is that one or two will wake up one or two people — temporarily at least — as some of them have woken me up — temporarily at least.

There used to be a fasting austerity in India called ‘the ant body’. An ant’s body, as you know, begins big and comes down very thin and then gets bigger again. So in this austerity, you started on the full moon day with fourteen mouthfuls of food and water. Then each day you reduced it by one mouthful. When it got to the dark night, you had nothing. But when the new moon appeared you could have your first, only one, mouthful of water or food. And you gradually increased it until you got up to fourteen mouthfuls a day. It isn’t much, if you have ever tried it. So seeing the new moon was quite important; and it can be difficult to make out the little thread.

The Chinese saying is: ‘With a deaf man you show the gate by pointing with your finger. With a blind man you show the gate by knocking on it.’ They are different means, and the plural ‘fingers’ implies that there are different means of getting people to see. If we think, ‘Oh, there is only one means,’ then we may be restricting our view. Still, as a rule, it is better to practise just one of the means.

Another thing is, it is worth pointing your finger at the moon one night just as an experiment to see what actually happens. People can write

books about fingers pointing to the moon, but it is quite clear they have never tried it. What actually happens — if your sight is normal — is that you point your finger towards the moon and focus on the finger. The finger is brilliantly clear, but you will see two vague moons beyond it which are not at all clear. Then you make a sort of leap; you change your focus to the moon. Now you will see the moon brilliantly clear, but you will see two transparent fingers!

It is worth trying this as an illustration of our practice. These illustrations are not given for nothing and sometimes they are very precise as to detail. When we are following a pointing finger, the pointing finger can become very very clear, but the goal very vague. When the time comes, we have to take a leap beyond that very clear finger to the goal; it is a change of focus, not of direction.

And then the means we are using becomes almost transparent and the moon becomes clear.

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.’ But in fact they don’t see it! It’s easy to say.

There are others who can get lost in the finger. You can study the finger; you can put rings on it; but then you forget its purpose. The forms are the methods and they are very important as pointing fingers, but if you forget what they are for and they become, so to speak, the goal in their own right, then your progress is liable to stop. And if it stops, it retrogresses.

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

At one of the great Buddhist temples (this is an example of form and reverence) the lineage goes right back to the Buddha. And the tradition of the sect is that the lineage must be read at the service before the altar every day. There are over one hundred names in 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 would take a very long time. Well, people have not got time for this now, but the names must be read. So they divide the list into four parts — twenty-five names on each — and four priests come together in front of the altar and read the four lists simultaneously. The names are read and the tradition is preserved. It sounds odd, but at least the service gets a move on.

It is very easy to follow forms and feel that one gets support from them. The forms also support each other. I may not feel very reverential, but when I see other people bowing so reverentially, I feel supported and encouraged to do it myself. Supposing, however, they feel the same? Then they are relying on me. Hakuin compares this to trees with interlaced branches. You might get a whole wood of trees like that. Now, they are holding each other up, and even when the roots are withering, the trees still stand up; it is like a table with many legs. There is no depth of root 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 a storm comes along and everything goes down. When the wind blows, the individual trees can only remain up by depending on their neighbours, and they can only remain up by depending on others. So, if one tree is blown, the strain is on the whole community. ‘But in a healthy growth,’ Hakuin says, ‘when each tree has strong individual roots, then they protect each other. The trees on the north side have their own roots, and they can stand up. When the north wind comes, they protect the others — they are not leaning on the others

  • they are standing by their own roots and are protecting the others. And when the wind comes from the south they, in turn, protect the others

  • because the trees have their own roots.’ And he uses this illustration to show that when forms begin to get more and more elaborate, more and more magnificent, and more and more apparently reverential, it might be just interlaced trees holding each other up.

The Chinese character for a tree shows the root. If we are asked to draw a tree, we just draw the trunk and the foliage that’s a tree! But to the Chinese, that is not a whole tree. There is at least as much below the ground as there is above it. And what is below is as important, or more important, than what is above — that makes up the whole tree.

One of the illustrations of this, which is quite an important one for people who are doing a practice, is the cherry tree. The cherry tree flowers just for two or three weeks once a year. The Japanese cherry doesn’t have fruit or much in the way of fragrance, but it blossoms very beautifully. And the blossoms don’t rot on the branch. When they are still in their fulness, they fall. This is said to be like a man of the true spiritual way. In the fullness, he can easily leave the branch without any regrets, without any desire to hang on past the time.

People turn up in their hundreds of thousands to see the cherry blossoms. And many of the people, the ordinary people, write poems and hang them on the trees even now. They come in order to appreciate these cherry blossoms. In front of my London house, too, there are three streets with Japanese cherries, and if you go out when the moon is nearly full and shining on the white cherry blossoms, it is a sight that you never forget. This happens once a year.

The illustration given is this. People see that wonderful flowering. Then at other times of the year the cherries are not flowering, so they think that somehow the cherries are failing. But this is not so. There are three weeks of blossoming and forty-nine weeks when the roots are going deeper, when — as the Chinese phrase goes — ‘the thunder enters the earth’, the vitality goes right down into the roots. That, and the period of the blossoming, forms a unity. It isn’t that the cherry is depressed and sad and failing, then suddenly has a wonderful success; and then that success, alas, is all too fleeting and is taken away. No, it is a single tree. What to the human being is the moment of glory and that other time when the vitality is in the roots — they form a unity.

I can give an example of this from judo. Experienced teachers can look at the build of keen young students — the limbs all differ and the proportions differ — but sometimes the teacher will see that one of the students has an exceptional facility with a particular movement, and that that could develop into a throw which is rather difficult to do. So the teacher says to the student, ‘Now look, if you practise this throw,’ which he shows him, ‘and you practise it a hundred thousand times, you will get the knack.’ There is a sort of knack which cannot be imitated or taught; it can only be felt. So the teacher says to him, ‘You will get the knack if you practise.’

Now, he practises — and he fails and fails. A hundred thousand will take some time, but a keen student may do, say, a hundred a day, apart from his ordinary competitive practice. And assuming he practises six days a week — if not seven as most of them do — that would be thirty thousand a year. So, in three years he could get through a hundred thousand — then he would have the knack. But it would be quite wrong for him after, say, one year to think, ‘Oh well, of course, I’ve still got two years to go! I can’t get it now.’ No, he may get it at any time. What the teacher is telling him is that it may take a hundred thousand repetitions to get that knack, and often does, but he shouldn’t think that it will; he should think, ‘Today! Today! Today!’ when he tries. He should think, ‘Now! Now! Now!’ as he tries his daily hundred.

Well, this is a hint for spiritual practice. People are told, ‘It will take a long time.’ It does take a long time in many cases, but it doesn’t follow that there has to be a particular length of time. The awareness is there and can be realized now! now! now!

One further development which you might find a parallel to is this: When a really experienced teacher tells a promising young judo man that he will get the knack of a particular throw if he practises in the way he suggests, that is faith — the teacher has faith in the pupil. People don’t realize that. They think, ‘Oh, faith is a question for the pupil.’ No, the teacher has faith that the pupil will be able to do this, otherwise he wouldn’t teach it to him. A pupil does it for about six months, and he fails and he fails and he fails. Now, from the teacher’s point of view, the hundred thousand failures and the one success form a unity. So they are not failures; they form a unity — the hundred thousand movements and the one success — just like the cherry trees. It isn’t that the cherry tree is failing and failing and failing to put out flowers. The roots are going deeper, and that forms a unity with the flowers coming out.

Now, after about six months that young man may meet what in judo circles are sometimes referred to as ‘the old soldiers’ (there are various uncomplimentary names describing them, but this one is the most acceptable). One of these old soldiers comes up to that young judo man and says, ‘Look, I’ve been here fourteen years.’ (His grade isn’t very high, but he is quite impressive with his reminiscences of the past.) And then he says, ‘You know, they don’t expect you to do this. They tell you this because it will get you to do something, you see, but they don’t really expect you to bring off that throw after a hundred thousand or a hundred million repetitions. You can’t do it unless you have been born in Japan and are brought up there and so on. You can’t do that, no, but keep on trying, you know, you will get a bit better; but don’t expect that you are ever going to pull it off.’

Well now, when somebody is about eighteen and he is told that by an old boy who has been there, seen it all, you know — come in the back door, the front door, the side door, knows it all — then he begins to hesitate; he begins to think, ‘I wonder if that’s right. Do they tell everybody this? Do they just tell you that you will have it after a hundred thousand at most?’

A young teacher, when he sees this, tends to get uneasy about it and thinks, ‘He’s being talked out of this.’ So he generally goes to a very senior teacher and says, ‘Look, this is what is happening. That old … is talking him out of it. Do you think I ought to have another word with him and just sort of, you know, put him right?’ And the old teacher says, ‘No. Now, look at you. You were in the British team at your peak and since then, as a teacher, you have produced some good men. You have written a couple of books on judo — one of them was quite good — and you are fairly well known. Now, he is your pupil and you have told him what he needs to do. He is either going to believe you, or he is going to believe that no-good who has never done anything himself and doesn’t want anyone else to do anything either. It is a question of faith. So, leave him. Either he will have the faith to keep on with it and then confirm it — and then he will trust you ever afterwards — or he won’t. But if you have to push him now, next time you will have to push him again, and the next time you will have to push him again. Now is the time he can develop faith. You have faith in him — let him have faith in you.’

We teach special techniques in judo which people can acquire. After perhaps eight years, a man who is very keen and has a good teacher can get an extraordinary skill in one or two moves. But then he identifies with the skill that he has, and when he comes up to a contest he thinks, ‘This is how I am going to win — by this special technique I’ve developed.’ Of course, his first aim could well be to find out what special technique the other man has developed so that he can guard against it. Well, you generally get confusing and conflicting reports about a prospective opponent. People might tell you, ‘Oh, he’s like a bomb at the beginning, but if you can survive that, he’s got nothing; he’s just got this one terrific throw.’ And then somebody else says, ‘Oh no, he’s given that up now; he’s given that up altogether. Now he hangs on till the fourth minute and then he explodes.’ Well, after you have had a certain amount of experience, you wipe all that aside and just think, ‘I’ll fight the man as he is.’

But we also build up special excellences and think we will fight with them — and we can win with them — but there are limits. The special excellence is, so to speak, like a block of ice; it cannot go through a sieve. As the judo grade goes up and up, opponents can put up the bars against these special excellences when they get to know of them. Now that judo man has to throw away his special skill and take the small and tiny opportunities as they occur. It is very difficult to do this, just as it is very difficult to give up one’s own particular technique for handling life.

Sometimes people come to the judo hall and say, ‘Look, I’m not very good at judo, but I am good at accounts and organizing things; I’ll take over the accounts — do them for nothing — and you’ll all be free to practise.’ Another man might be a skilled carpenter. He is terrified of judo but he wants to be associated with it, so he says, ‘I’ll do all the repairs,’ and you have new benches, and you have new racks in the changing room, and it is all sort of transformed. Then someone else cleans out the showers and the lavatory and does it beautifully — but he is not doing much judo practice which is bad for him, and the members are doing nothing towards any of it, which is bad for them. So we try to prevent this in a judo club; and the team members — however good and skilful — are on their knees scrubbing out the showers with the others. This makes a great difference to the whole atmosphere of the place. It brings a unity to it.

In our Western sports, and in a good many other things too, the tigers won’t play with the rabbits. But in the budd1, however much of a tiger a man is — he is in the club team, perhaps in the county team, perhaps in the national team, and he practises like mad — he always gives twenty minutes of his time every day to instructing a beginner, a complete beginner, in order to bring this unity. It isn’t that some are performing stars and the others are just watching them. There is a unity.

We can imitate things; we can imitate pointing fingers; we can imitate spiritual attitudes which are supposed to lead to progress — but those imitations do not lead to anything. It is like putting rings on the fingers. The pointing finger should be studied carefully, but if it becomes an end in itself, the practice will drop. There is a Hindu story which contains rather a good lesson in this. Two brothers used to worship every day. One would use many vessels of gold and silver to perform his ceremony very elaborately (there are such ceremonies in Buddhism too). It took him about an hour, and he did it with great devotion and sincerity. Everything was precise, absolutely accurate, and he did all the prayers. Now, his brother did not do anything like that; he didn’t even have a fixed time for praying. When he felt the impulse, he would simply stand and clasp his hands together for a few minutes… then go about his business.

Well, the ‘ceremonialist’, as you might call him, had an impulse to find out what happened to their prayers — or at least to his prayers — and he was told of a ceremony which would give the vision. So he performed this ceremony and then had the vision of a great courtyard full of flowers. The attendants were loading these flowers on to carts, and a voice told him: ‘These carts are bound for the halls of the Most High, and these flowers are the prayers of the two brothers.’ The place is full of flowers. Then he looked round and saw a little posy, and he realized that this was the prayers of his brother. It looked rather pathetic, but when he looked carefully he saw it had a beauty of its own, a simple beauty of its own.

Then one of the attendants called out to the others, ‘Quick! hasten! hasten! We must get these flowers cleared away and sent to the halls before the next lot arrive.’ The ‘ceremonial’ brother, feeling a bit sorry for them, stepped forward and said, ‘Well, there’s no need to hurry, because I shall not be praying until this evening.’

Oh,’ replied the attendant, ‘we can handle any number of those little posies, but your brother is about to pray again, and the whole place will be deluged with flowers.’

Now, that man had a technique of prayer. It wasn’t bad — can’t say it was a bad thing — but there was something much higher. In all the arts and in life generally, we get a technique of handling things. Our technique might be helplessness: ‘Oh, I could never mend a fuse. No, I’ve never been any good at that,’ and people rush to mend it. Then we say, ‘Oh, aren’t they clever!’ That can be a technique, an effective one; and we might use it very successfully. But if I am alone and the fuse goes, well, I find I can get up and mend it well enough.

And people have other techniques: ‘I look at everything scientifically.’ ‘I look at everything, well, historically.’ ‘I look at everything from

the point of view of kindness — got to be kind to people. If a man says he is thirsty, give him a drink. If he is still thirsty, give him another drink.’ If he is an undiagnosed diabetic you will be killing him, of course, but that doesn’t matter — it’s kind. Confucius said that benevolence without wisdom is sentimentality and does not lead to much.

Our technique, then, has to be given up. We think, ‘What?’ In judo, when the teacher tells us — and he says this only to people who are determined to improve — ‘You’ve mastered that; now give it up for at least six months,’ we think, ‘What? I’m not allowed to do that? I go on the mat and I’m not allowed to use my big throw!’ We have to try things that we can’t do. We get countered and look like absolute fools. Now, many of us fail that test. We think, ‘Oh, no, no! I’m not going to do this,’ and we go back to what we can do — and we get some successes. But those who have faith in the teacher — and who realize that the teacher has faith in them — persist, and then begin to develop a free movement. They are not fixed on one point; they can move freely. If the opportunity is here, they can take it; if it is there, they can take it. They are not fixed.

There are supposed to be people who prepare jokes. I think it was the American poet Ogden Nash who wrote a story about someone who thought, ‘Well, there’s a proverb, isn’t there? “The shoemaker should stick to his last!” I’m going to this big party, and there will probably be a man there called Schumacher — a common name in America

  • and very likely he will have been divorced but won’t be getting on very well with his new wife, and then I shall say to him, “Schumacher, you should have stuck to your last!”’ And the story describes this man going round the party trying to find a divorced Schumacher who is having trouble with his new wife, but he never finds one.

Well, it is a bit like that when we have our favourite techniques in life. We go round looking for opportunities, trying to manoeuvre opportunities, so that we can bring off the big gun. But, actually, people get a sort of instinct for not getting in front of a big gun, even though it may be hidden in the bushes.

Methods fail in the end, so we have to give them up. In judo it is called ‘cutting off the bull’s horns’. After eight years’ intense practice, you develop something very strong — the bull’s horns

  • and these are what you fight with. Then you are asked to cut them off, and that means becoming a beginner again. This is a very important part of the spiritual side as well as the technical side of judo training.

The teachers also tell us — and they put it into practice too — that when we are becoming strong and well known, and when we have mastered something, then we should take up something else where we are going to be no good at all. If you are a violinist and you have mastered the violin, then take up the piano and you will be stumbling over five-finger exercises. They say that when you have become a great big frog in your own pond and puffing yourself up, go into the neighbouring pond and become a tadpole, a tiny little tadpole. This, again, is cutting off and being able to go freely into those other forms.

There is a poem which applies to these fixed successful attitudes in life. It is used in all the training schools in Japan. The reference is to a particular mountain where the trees and bushes are so thick that nothing can get through:

The trees on Mount Ibuka
Are not so thick That from time to time
A ray of moonlight
Cannot pierce through the branches.

Nothing solid can come through, but a ray of clear awareness can. All our cultivated habits of will and thought fail in certain circumstances, but clear awareness is able to penetrate any obstacle.

Buddha-nature, where is it? It does not seem to be anywhere. The teacher says, ‘But it’s here!’ It is something which we know we have not got, and yet we have. One method of teaching this is through history. Rather than citing examples from Chinese or Japanese history which take long explanations, I will give one or two from our own history. Now, all of you can read silently. You can pick up a letter and you can read it. But in the Middle Ages and in classical times, they couldn’t do that. They had to verbalize it; they had to speak it aloud before they could understand. That was the only way they could read.

This was true of Japan too. A Russian captain whose ship was wrecked on the coast in the eighteenth century was held in prison until the authorities could investigate him. The captain complained to the guard that he was keeping him awake at night by reading aloud. He said, ‘Please read quietly.’ The guard said, ‘But this is the only way I can read. Unless I say the words, I cannot read.’

St Augustine could read silently and was regarded as an unparalleled genius because of that. But everybody here can do that. Are we all unparalleled geniuses? Perhaps we are, because certainly at that time they could not find this capacity within themselves.

Medieval people built great cathedrals. These were tremendous triumphs of organization — and the finances were pretty complicated too. But the accountants could not multiply in their heads more than five times five — ‘No human being could remember the tables after that.’ So they had them posted up on the walls. And if an accountant was away from his posted-up tables and wanted to multiply, say, seven times seven — ‘Well, naturally, one can’t remember that!’ — so he would hold up a hand and put down the fingers above five. For seven times seven that would be two fingers down, leaving three up. And the same with the other hand. Then he would add the fingers that are down (four) — they are the tens — and multiply the fingers that are up (three times three), and there is the answer: forty-nine. Professional accountants used this method. There are references in the literature of the time to ‘the supple fingers of accountants’ because they were doing this all the time. But we can manage this now in our heads. They were professionals dealing in millions of gold coins, but it was too difficult for them!

There are examples from Chinese and Japanese history to illustrate this, but these are two from European history. We are meant to find something which we cannot yet see in ourselves. We have to have faith in the teacher, just as the teacher has faith in us.

We are asked to make sacrifices, tremendous sacrifices. A man was complaining to a teacher about this. He said, ‘We’re asked to give up so much.’

Well, not necessarily, you know,’ said the teacher.

But we are. We’re asked to give up all these things.’

So the two of them went to a judo ddjd where the teacher knew the pupils, and he called one of them out. He said, ‘Now, this boy is very keen. He is determined to become county champion.’ Then he asked the boy how often he trained.

I train three or four hours every evening, and Saturday nights I often run all night and …’

The teacher said, ‘But you’re making the most colossal sacrifices. I mean, you are so exhausted you never go out to the cinema in the evenings or anything like that, no parties. You’ve got to keep off the drink which some of your friends go in for. You have to sacrifice all this. Don’t you feel it is sometimes too much?’

And the boy just looked at him and said, ‘What are you talking about? I want to do judo!’

That boy is doing what he wants to do with his whole being, and all these other things are simply peripheral, futile, boring.

Pupils, when they enter a school to learn the Way, sometimes discover that they are given a standard discipline that everybody else is given — and it is a great disappointment.

A pupil says on entry, ‘We’re all different, so I expect to have what will suit my character.’

The Master of Novices replies, ‘Well, these practices will suit your character.’

Oh, good.’

And then the Master says, ‘It’s probably better if you don’t talk to other people about them.’

Ah yes.’

Of course, after being told that, he would never say a word, but somehow it leaks out and he discovers that, in fact, these are practices that everybody is given. So he goes to complain, ‘Look, this is just sort of mass production, isn’t it? But it’s got to suit. We’re all different, aren’t we?’

Well, here we find that we are all the same.’

But look, everybody says we’re all different.’

The fact that everybody says so means that we are all the same.’

One word more about applying things to ourselves. Two women pupils studied under a woman teacher for whom they had a great reverence. The teacher would see them every week together, and one of them said when they were coming away, ‘You know, it’s funny, at the end she always says something about egoism, or pride, or something like that.’

Yes, I’ve noticed that and I try to examine my conduct. And I generally do find that there is something in it, and I try to amend it.’

Oh well, of course, you must speak for yourself. I’ve nothing to say about that at all. But I do all that work for the temple; I never call attention to it; I never ask for any acknowledgement or recognition — and I don’t get any either! How could anyone think / was egoistic? Why, I’m well known for remaining in the background; I’m famous for my love of obscurity!

1The knightly arts, including judo.

© Trevor Leggett

Previously called ‘Fingers and Moons’

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