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“The Finger and The Moon.”

November 16, 2017

“The Finger and The Moon.”

Some of you who are familiar with Buddhist or Taoist teachings, or who have seen the Bruce Lee film “Enter The Dragon” might have heard of a teaching called “The Finger and The Moon.”

This teaching does not just relate to martial arts practitioners, or adherents of Buddhism or Taoism. It relates to anyone who practices any religion, or who is on any spiritual path.

Although I’ve studied Buddhism and a bit of Taoism, I first came across this teaching when I watched “Enter The Dragon,” a classic martial arts film, featuring Bruce Lee as a martial arts expert who becomes an undercover agent who infiltrates a mixed martial arts tournament so he can take down a crime lord.

In an early part of the film, Lee’s character gives brief instructions to one of his young students. I’ll include the clip in this post, just below. During his instruction, Lee talks about the finger and the moon. If you watch the clip on youtube, instead of just here on my blog, you can find another commentary on the teachings found in the clip.. worth reading.

One of the things Lee says is, “Look at the moon, don’t look at the finger. If you look at the finger you will miss all of the moon’s heavenly glory.”

Here is the clip:


I’m guessing Lee or the scriptwriters found this teaching in Buddhism, Taoism or both.

Ages ago, a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India to China, and it was in China that Buddhism became mixed with an ancient Chinese philosophy called Taoism. That’s why some of the same teachings might be found in both Buddhism and Taosim. There’s even a famous form of Buddhism called Zen, which is a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.

Also, in China, Buddhism is practiced along with Taoism and Confucianism. Lee, being from China, and being a martial artist, (Chinese martial arts being rooted in Taoism, Buddhism, or both) was no doubt exposed to these philosophies.

So, I’m guessing neither Lee nor the writer or writers of the script invented this teaching.

Even though I saw the film decades ago, I never came up with an interpretation of what Lee’s character meant.

Today, as my incredibly over-active mind was rambling along while I was doing my stretches, I came up with an interpretation of this teaching. An interpretation, not THE interpretation.

I started thinking about how it can be easy to focus not so much on the purpose or goal of spiritual teachings, but instead, focusing only on the teachings or primarily focusing on spiritual teachers.

This is true regardless of what faith one practices.

If you are a Christian, you likely believe that Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, and therefore God and a part of God at the same time, is the moon, and a part of the moon, at the same time.

I think, for Christians, Christ, as God, is the moon, but Christ is also, as a moral teacher (in the Bible, he talked a LOT about morality and right living) a finger, pointing to God.. God his Father, and to a higher way of consciousness and living.. which is also the moon.

(I’m being as clear as I can, but my mind is muddled, and religion can be tricky.. )

Even if you think of the Christian God as the moon, you still might also think of your favorite pastor or priest or Christian teacher on TV or radio as the moon instead of the finger.

So often, congregations become a cult of personality, focused on a particular, popular priest, or a much loved and respected pastor and his or her family (some Christian denominations have female pastors). I have heard of and seen this happen.

Unfortunately, members of the clergy get caught up in this sometimes, and this goes to their heads. This phenomena can be very bad for a congregation.

Also, it is common for pastors or priests to not always stay with one congregation. Often, they get re-assigned, or choose to move on to a different church somewhere else. When this happens, some folks leave their church, because their favorite pastor or priest has moved on.

Christians, it is important to worship your God, not his messengers.

Getting fixated on a spiritual leader is not a problem unique to Christians.

Hindus can easily become focused on their gurus or other spiritual teachers. If you want to see an example of this, watch a unique and excellent documentary called “Kumare,” about a guy who, some years back, decided to pretend to be a guru – a Hindu teacher claiming to possess special wisdom. This film is really worth watching.

Here’s the trailer for “Kurame:”


The trailer makes the film seem like a comedy, but much of it is serious and pretty deep. Ironically, although the guy is pretending to be a guru (which begs such questions as, what makes a real guru, and are all gurus pretending.. what is real?) he learns and comes up with some definite wisdom and spiritual truth, I think.

Moving on to Buddhism and other faiths..

Buddhists can get too focused not only on Buddhist teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Naht Hanh, or Pema Chodron, but even on Buddha. Buddha did not want this to happen. He never claimed to be God. He claimed to be “one who woke up,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha.

Buddha did claim to wake up to ultimate reality, and shared that reality with people in India, almost 500 years before Christ. But Buddha did not want the focus to be on him.

Buddha’s intention, as far as I understand it, was that people not become Buddhists.. followers of Buddha, but instead become Buddhas. His hope was for people to become as enlightened as he had become.

There’s even a Buddhist teaching on meditation that says, “If you encounter the Buddha along the road, kill him.”

What this teaching means is don’t be distracted by or fixated on anything in particular while you are meditating, including thoughts or images of the Buddha. Instead, while meditating, let your thoughts arise and depart.. float overhead like clouds. Don’t get stuck on any thoughts or images (not even clouds), and don’t get stuck on the Buddha.

The Buddha was a finger, pointing to enlightenment, The Dharma, the Way of the Buddha.. not the absolute way, but a way of thinking and living.. is a way to enlightenment. It is enlightenment, a gradual process for most Buddhists, that is ultimately the moon.

Buddha had disciples, but didn’t want them to venerate him as a god. He wanted to educate his disciples so they could go forth and teach the Dharma.. pointing others to the moon, enlightenment. (What is enlightenment? Buddhists disagree on this, so I’m not going to attempt to define enlightenment, I’m just saying, in my understanding, it’s the final, most important goal of Buddhism),

But, go to any Buddhist temple, or country where Buddhism is practiced.. or just go to any Chinese or multi-spiritual gift shop, and you will see statues of the Buddha. (Side note.. the fat Buddha is NOT a statue of the historical Buddha, whose name was Siddartha Gautama, but that’s a subject for another essay).

A statue of the Buddha in one’s home or temple where one attends Buddhist services is not necessarily a bad thing, if the statue is a reminder enlightenment and how to achieve enlightenment – right living and right meditation, etc. – the Buddhist way to enlightenment.

However, if much time is spent on venerating the Buddha, or thinking of Buddha as a god, like what is done in the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist sect, that, in my opinion, is not what the Buddha wanted.

What about Wicca and other forms of paganism? Many many pagans are what are called solitary practitioners. They are not part of a group, but practice their paganism, magick, etc. by themselves and do their own thing.

However, some Wiccans and other pagans are part of organized groups. These groups have at least one leader, or a small hierarchy of leaders.

Even for pagans, those who are part of a group, it can be an easy thing to do to focus on one or more of the leaders and not just on what is being taught or what the goal of the teachings is.

I am guessing that Mormons, Muslims and Jews sometimes can become too focused on their own religious leaders, even if this is not at all what their leaders want.

And, unfortunately, being the moon, not the finger, is exactly what some religious leaders and teachers want to be. Watch out for these leaders, regardless of what religion you practice.

No, spirituality is not ultimately about who is giving the teachings, nor is spirituality just about the teachings.

The moon is what the teachings bring you to, whether the teachings bring you to salvation, enlightenment, a greater appreciation of God, or whatever the goal of the teachings is.

The moon can be a combination of moral living, compassion, and appreciation or worship of deity.

But moral codes and teachings can also become only the finger instead of the moon, if people get too hung up on various teachings and morals. This is not good, and can lead to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, regardless of the faith, is destructive.

If you are on a spiritual path, it is important to stop and consider if what you are focusing on is the moon, or is it only a finger pointing to the moon, regardless of whether the finger is a person or a teaching, or moral code that is pointing to the moon.

Yes, focusing on teachings, morals, practices, and so forth is important, but only within the context of getting you to focus on the moon, whether it be God and what God desires of you, enlightenment not only for one’s self but for all beings, or whatever your ultimate spiritual goal is.

It is the moon that matters, not the finger. Do not look at the finger. Look at the moon.

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