Pointing finger

There is an old Chan and Zen story that goes like this:

The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.

“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”

With that the teacher called his happy dog.

“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.

“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.

“He’s looking at your finger.”

“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”

The story is based on teachings given by the Buddha to Mahamati, recorded in the Lankavatara Sutta – a Mahayanan text.

In the sutta he tells Mahamati to look beyond the words, beyond the “pointing finger” to the real meaning. I love this teaching because it can be applied to so many aspects of life, including the texts of other religions such as the Bible or Quran which contain so many wonderful teachings on love, generosity, and kindness. 

The Buddha sometimes spoke of the “84,000 dhamma gates” which was a metaphor for the innumerable ways to enlightenment. The teaching represents the Buddha’s tolerance for other religions at the time, and an acceptance that Buddhism doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on enlightenment. It’s a reminder that we should be tolerant in this modern age too. If a person is striving towards a religion’s goal and they are a good, moral, and upright person, then this is superb!

I think that people of all religious paths can learn a lot from each other. We are all teachers and all students!

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dhamma archive!

Image of moon courtesy of NASA. 

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Advice from master to students

Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen Student.

When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.

Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest.

Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.

Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.

A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.

Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.

A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.

Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.

Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe.

Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

– Written by Master Zengetsu, Zen/Chan Tradition, for his students.

Bowl Of Oil

In India there was once a king who believed in a non-Buddhist religion which taught many kinds of bitter practices … some spread ashes on their bodies, and some slept on beds of nails. They cultivated all kinds of ascetic practices. Meanwhile, the Bhikshus who cultivated the Buddhadharma had it ‘easy,’ because they didn’t cultivate that way. Now, the king of that country said to the Buddha’s disciples, ‘It’s my belief that the ascetic practices which these non-Buddhists cultivate still don’t enable them to end their afflictions. How much the less must you Bhikshus, who are so casual, be able to sever the affliction of your thoughts of sexual desire.’

One of the Dharma Masters answered the king this way: ‘Suppose you take a man from jail who had been sentenced to execution, and you say to him ‘Take this bowl of oil and carry it in your two hands as you walk down the highway. If you don’t spill a single drop, I’ll release you when you return.’ Then, suppose you send some beautiful women musicians out on the highway to sing and play their instruments where the sentenced man is walking with his bowl of oil. If he should spill any oil, of course, you’ll execute him. But if he should come back without spilling a single drop, what do you suppose he will answer if you ask him what he’s seen on the road?”

The king of country did just that: he took a man destined to be executed and said to him, ‘Today you should be executed but I’m going to give you an opportunity to save your life. How? I’ll give you a bowl of oil to carry in your two hands as you take a walk on the highway. If you can do it without spilling a single drop, I’ll spare your life. Go try it.’ The sentenced man did as he was told. He went out on the highway, and when he returned he had not spilled one drop. Then the king asked him, ‘What did you see out on the highway?’ The sentenced man said, ‘I didn’t see a single thing. All I did was watch the oil to keep it from spilling. I didn’t see anything else or hear anything at all.’

So, the king asked the Dharma Master, ‘Well, what is the principle here?’ The Dharma Master answered, ‘The sentenced man was like the novice who has left the home life. Both see the question of Birth and Death as too important to waste time on thoughts of sexual desire.’

– Master Hsuan Hua, Huiyang Chan School.

Cracked Pot

An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course , the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.

“I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.”

The old woman smiled, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

– Unknown