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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Jesus Christ

Happy Christmas everyone. I hope you and those you love are having a happy day. 

Since it is Christmas it seemed appropirate to post this small speech by Ajahn Candasiri about Jesus through Buddhist eyes.

“Having tried with sincerity to approach my Christian journey in a way that was meaningful within the context of everyday life, I had reached a point of deep weariness and despair. I was weary with the apparent complexity of it all; despair had arisen because I was not able to find any way of working with the less helpful states that would creep, unbidden, into the mind: the worry, jealousy, grumpiness, and so on. And even positive states could turn around and transform themselves into pride or conceit, which were of course equally unwanted.

Eventually, I met Ajahn Sumedho, an American-born Buddhist monk, who had just arrived in England after training for ten years in Thailand. His teacher was Ajahn Chah, a Thai monk of the Forest Tradition who, in spite of little formal education, won the hearts of many thousands of people, including a significant number of Westerners. I attended a ten-day retreat at Oakenholt Buddhist Centre, near Oxford, and sat in agony on a mat on the floor of the draughty meditation hall, along with about 40 other retreatants of different shapes and sizes. In front of us was Ajahn Sumedho, who presented the teachings and guided us in meditation, with three other monks.

This was a turning point for me. Although the whole experience was extremely tough – both physically and emotionally – I felt hugely encouraged. The teachings were presented in a wonderfully accessible style, and just seemed like ordinary common sense. It didn’t occur to me that it was ‘Buddhism’. Also, they were immensely practical and as if to prove it, we had, directly in front of us, the professionals – people who had made a commitment to living them out, twenty-four hours a day. I was totally fascinated by those monks: by their robes and shaven heads, and by what I heard of their renunciant lifestyle, with its 227 rules of training. I also saw that they were relaxed and happy – perhaps that was the most remarkable, and indeed slightly puzzling, thing about them.

I felt deeply drawn by the teachings, and by the Truth they were pointing to: the acknowledgement that, yes, this life is inherently unsatisfactory, we experience suffering or dis-ease – but there is a Way that can lead us to the ending of this suffering. Also, although the idea was quite shocking to me, I saw within the awakening of interest in being part of a monastic community.

So now, after more than twenty years as a Buddhist nun, what do I find as I encounter Jesus in the gospel stories?

Well, I have to say that he comes across as being much more human than I remember. Although there is much said about him being the son of God, somehow that doesn’t seem nearly as significant to me as the fact that he is a person – a man of great presence, enormous energy and compassion, and significant psychic abilities.

He also has a great gift for conveying spiritual truth in the form of images, using the most everyday things to illustrate points he wishes to make: bread, fields, corn, salt, children, trees. People don’t always understand at once, but are left with an image to ponder. Also he has a mission – to re-open the Way to eternal life; and he’s quite uncompromising in his commitment to, as he puts it, “carrying out his Father’s will”.

His ministry is short but eventful. Reading through Mark’s account, I feel tired as I imagine the relentless demands on his time and energy. It’s a relief to find the occasional reference to him having time alone or with his immediate disciples, and to read how, like us, he at times needs to rest.

A story I like very much is of how, after a strenuous day of giving teachings to a vast crowd, he is sound asleep in the boat that is taking them across the sea. His calm in response to the violent storm that arises as he is sleeping I find most helpful when things are turbulent in my own life.

I feel very caught up in the drama of it all; there is one thing after another. People listen to him, love what he has to say (or in some cases are disturbed or angered by it) and are healed. They can’t have enough of what he has to share with them. I’m touched by his response to the 4000 people who, having spent three days with him in the desert listening to his teaching, are tired and hungry. Realising this, he uses his gifts to manifest bread and fish for them all to eat.

Jesus dies as a young man. His ministry begins when he is thirty (I would be interested to know more of the spiritual training he undoubtedly received before then), and ends abruptly when he is only thirty-three. Fortunately, before the crucifixion he is able to instruct his immediate disciples in a simple ritual whereby they can re-affirm their link with him and each other (I refer, of course, to the last supper) – thereby providing a central focus of devotion and renewal for his followers, right up to the present time.

I have the impression that he is not particularly interested in converting people to his way of thinking. Rather it’s a case of teaching those who are ready; interestingly, often the people who seek him out come from quite depraved or lowly backgrounds. It is quite clear to Jesus that purity is a quality of the heart, not something that comes from unquestioning adherence to a set of rules.

His response to the Pharisees when they criticise his disciples for failing to observe the rules of purity around eating expresses this perfectly: “There is nothing from outside that can defile a man” – and to his disciples he is quite explicit in what happens to food once it has been consumed. “Rather, it is from within the heart that defilements arise.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t at this point go on to explain what to do about these.

What we hear of his last hours: the trial, the taunting, the agony and humiliation of being stripped naked and nailed to a cross to die – is an extraordinary account of patient endurance, of willingness to bear the unbearable without any sense of blame or ill will. It reminds me of a simile used by the Buddha to demonstrate the quality of metta, or kindliness, he expected of his disciples: “Even if robbers were to attack you and saw off your limbs one by one, should you give way to anger, you would not be following my advice.” A tall order, but one that clearly Jesus fulfills to perfection: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

– Ajahn Candasiri, Thai Forest Tradition.