No Finger, No Moon

Finger to Moon


Tesshin used his talk this week to caution us about “elitism” in Zen.  This particular delusion comes in many shapes and sizes.  In the West there is a certain sense of spiritual superiority associated with Zen practice.  In Asian Buddhist societies there is also a kind of exclusivity where certain practices are associated with a “Greater Vehicle” and other practices and traditions are associated with a “Lesser Vehicle.”  Both of these delusions can be amplified by racial and class overtones.  For instance, in the West, Zen practice has historically been concentrated in white upper middleclass groups.  In the East, Mahayana is concentrated in the richer northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea) whereas Hinayana, or more properly called Theravadin Buddhism is concentrated in the poorer southeast Asia.  (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, etc.)   Unfortunately, it seems that the delusion of practicing a “better class” of Buddhism has infected both east and west.  This should not be a surprise, however, as all people suffer from the same types of delusion!!


Tesshin paused at this point to be very clear – there is not a better or worse vehicle of Buddhism, or for that matter, any spiritual tradition.  They are all valid means of gaining insight and liberation from suffering.  What is really important is a student’s intent and how “far along” they are in practice.  To illustrate this point, Tesshin returned to the parable of the master pointing at the moon and discussed how different students at different places on the path would experience the master’s finger.  Tesshin’s goal here is to “redefine” greater and lesser vehicles away from what tradition you follow and more about OUR mind and the state and strength of OUR practice.  


Tesshin invited us to imagine we were alive 2500 years ago and Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching his disciple Ananda.  He points at the moon and says …


“You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”  


Tesshin then asked, how would someone at the most basic level “Lesser Vehicle” experience the master’s message.  The easiest way to think of this level is when you entered a Zendo for the first time.  Everything was amazing and otherworldly.  The Sensei comes out accompanied by his attendants.  You mind is racing and you know something different is happening.  The first reaction is veneration and perhaps a bow or even prostration is in order.  Many practitioners of Buddhism are at this level.  Is this a bad level to be at? – NO!  If one travels through Asia, you will see devotion everywhere.  (northeast and southeast)  Our Western egos look down on devotion as inauthentic practice – but we must remember that the sixth patriarch of Zen was instantly enlightened by hearing the Diamond Sutra!!  Devotion is a totally viable vehicle to Nirvana if practiced correctly.


Tesshin next asked us to imagine someone using the “Middle Vehicle.”  This is where many of us are in the West and it can be the most dangerous vehicle!  He we go beyond ritual and devotion and try to understand the Dharma at its deepest levels.  The challenge is that we are doing it intellectually.  We are reading books and studying instead of experiencing the Dharma directly.  We are trying to find out how we can “utilize” the Dharma to make our lives better.  Someone here would see the master pointing at the moon and may ask him why he is pointing at the moon and not a tree.  They may think that the master is pointing at a crescent moon and a full moon would be so much more effective.  This person is lost in detail.  However, if the intention is pure – namely to really live and experience the truth –  than the act of studying can be a type of meditation which prepares the student for higher achievement and is not a total waste of time.


Tesshin next described the “Great Vehicle.” Here a student realizes that the Dharma is not something out there to learn, but rather something which is already internal.  You are not practicing Zen – you are Zen manifest!  It is alive and breathing in every act you are doing.  Here the student winks at the Master and completely disregards the finger.  It is the Moon and the moonlight shines everywhere throughout space and time.


Tesshin asked the group, what is greater than the Great Vehicle of Liberation?  This state, of course, is Nirvana.  Here there is no moon, teacher, or student.  Nothing needs to be said or asked.  All that is present is [X]!


So, when we become smug in our confidence in choosing the right practice and having the right knowledge – it is important to realize how far away we really are from the goal.  The tradition does not matter, the teacher does not matter, the books do not matter.  All that matters is reality and our experience of it.