Pointing at the Moon
by Stuart Goodnick

Recently a friend brought to my attention an analogy that he attributed to Lao Tzu. The analogy describes the relationship between spiritual teaching and reality as that of a finger pointing at the moon. When trying to help another to see the moon, one might point a finger toward the sky. The intent is to have the other follow the finger, look up, and to see the moon directly. The intent certainly is not to have the other focus attention on the finger. And yet, spiritual practitioners frequently do just that.

The finger may take many forms. It may take the form of a guru or a practice; it may be a god form or a sacred book. It might be an elaborate system of esoteric psychology or cosmology. It might even take the form of a spiritual newsletter. Whatever form it takes, its function remains the same: a reminder of where to look. A pointing finger is very useful in a practical sense. Besides its original function of pointing the way, it can also be a great prod to remind us to keep looking at the moon. But when that finger becomes the ultimate focus of attention, genuine spiritual inquiry ceases and something entirely different begins.

So why is it that spiritual practitioners often become so focused on the finger? For one thing it is much easier to look at the finger than to look up at the moon. There is an Armenian folk saying that states, “Pigs never see the stars.” We are trained from birth to look at the ground and root around for food and interesting smells. Craning our heads up to look at a finger is hard enough. Looking at the moon is quite a stretch, at least at first.

For another thing, most of us begin a spiritual practice without really having much of a sense that there is a moon to look at. In fact, most of us don’t even have an understanding that pointing is pointing. To get a sense for this, try pointing something out to a cat. The cat will certainly be aware of your finger. But your intention of inviting the cat to redirect its attention to whatever you are pointing at is an abstraction that is simply meaningless to it. If you put some tuna on the end of your fingertip, the kitty would come over to lick it, but that is probably the closest you’d come to directing its attention.

Certainly human beings resemble cats more than is comfortable to admit. Given the conditions that we all experience when growing up, it is very natural that the tendency when embarking on spiritual work is to look at the finger rather than the moon. It is crucial, however, to recognize the difference between looking at the moon or a finger. An effective teacher or sangha will help remind a practitioner fixated on the finger to look elsewhere, but ultimately it is the responsibility of each student to learn to do this personally.

Ultimately, identification with any aspect of the teaching can prove dangerous, because it is just these identifications that use the teaching itself as a ready disguise. For example, one may fixate upon a particular practice as especially important. Or a practitioner may identify with the tendency of mind to grasp after a system for organizing the insights that arise along the path. One may over-invest in the relationship with the teacher and partially reject responsibility for one’s practice, or limit the effectiveness of that relationship by inappropriately defining its character. Or a practitioner may hang on to a set of words or an explanation and always reference that as a starting point for inquiry. However it manifests, the mind’s attempt to somehow capture and concretize the teaching is the beginning of a return to the finger.

In a study group the other day we were discussing this very point. We had been talking about the problem that whatever we can say about the teaching is not the teaching. We had talked a great deal about what IT was not. Someone pointed out the irony of trying to discuss something non-conceptual by exchanging concepts. We concluded that these concepts are best seen as a finger pointing at the moon. There are not in and of themselves important except in so far as they indicate the right direction to look. Moreover, as our founder Robert Ennis used to point out, the best way to use such ideas is to listen to them without evaluating or judging them, to try to look where they are pointing, and then to let them go. Just as a pointing finger – or the hand of which it is a part – can only grasp at the moon in vain, so must we allow our minds to release even the most sublime thoughts. Even those thoughts can no more encompass the truth than can a cat be trained to look at the moon.