What the “Finger Pointing to the Moon” analogy really means – from Zen Buddhism, the Buddha in the Shurangama Sutra

“It is like the finger pointing to the moon…” said Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.

Where did this imagery originally come from?  It comes from the Shurangama Sutra, a core text for Zen/Chan Buddhist training, where the Buddha wanted to point out where Ananda’s real mind (the True Mind) was to him.

So in this “Finger to the moon” analogy, the Buddha explained that:

Imagine someone is trying to show you the moon by pointing to it:

  • Your True Mind is the Moon (naturally bright, i.e., has enlightenment naturally)
  • The Finger is the Teachings (dark, i.e., lacks enlightenment)

The Finger points directly to the Moon – so that you can see the moon for yourself – directly.

Similarly, the Buddha’s Teachings point directly to your True Mind (your Buddha Nature).

If someone points to the moon – don’t just look at the finger – because:

  1. You’ll miss the moon
  2. You think the finger is the moon
  3. You don’t know what is naturally bright (has enlightenment) vs what is naturally dark (lacks enlightenment)

Similarly, the Buddha’s Teachings (Dharma) point directly to your True Mind – don’t just look at the teachings – in your mind training/meditation – reflect upon your mind and USE the teachings to see where the teachings are pointing to – so that you can see your own real Mind for yourself (which is naturally radiant because it is naturally endowed with its own enlightenment).  This is THE fundamental point of Chan/Zen training.

Master Hsuan Hua explains this section of the Shurangama Sutra:

  • The moon represents the true mind.
  • The Dharma which is spoken is the finger,

since the Buddha speaks about the Dharma in order to point to the true mind….

The person in the example:

  • Doesn’t recognize either the finger or the moon for what they are, and so they seem lost, although they are still there.
  • He doesn’t understand light and darkness; in other words, he doesn’t know what is meant by “enlightenment” or what is meant by the “lack of enlightenment”; he doesn’t know what is meant by “ignorance” and what is meant by “true understanding.”…

The Buddha speaks about the Dharma in order to point to the true mind, and it was Ānanda’s mistake to suppose that the true mind was in the Dharma. The Buddha points that out to Ānanda by means of the example of the finger and the moon. (II, 61– 3)

A New Translation Buddhist Text Translation Society. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra With Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Kindle Locations 1542-1548).

 

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