The Meaning of the Finger Pointing to the Moon

The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas i do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriach responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”

Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Hotei's Finger Pointing at the Moon

Hotei pointing with the finger to the moon

The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon is the essence here.

But what does this mean on a deeper level? How does it relate to todays everyday life? How can we understand the meaning in an useful manner?

The laughing Buddha Hotei is pointing to the moon, who was a monk who lived during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923 AD) of China. Contentment and happiness being his defining attributes, Hotei has a cheerful face and a big belly.

Analyzing the pointer is pointless

… said Eckhart Tolle, yet we tend to analyze the pointers without noticing it. If we are discussing about whether something is good for us or not or especially if we come to a philosophical debate, we are discussing the validity of models and concepts. We can also go out and experience something directly.

It’s the same with spirituality.

Spirituality is all about experiencing and the truth itself. So this post here is of course a finger pointing. The words are only pointing. So as long as we are pointing and discussing about the different pointers, we are not experiencing. The experience of something is the connection with something, the feeling one with something, without labeling.

What happens in philosophy and in religion again and again is the intense discussion about the pointers. How can it be that there is a discussion about one thing that is true? It is one thing right? It can only be because we represent something differently, which are different pointers. Then it is easy to discuss and disagree about them.

The map is not the territory

The map is not the territory is just another way to point to the same thing. The map is the concept of what we have in the mind about something. It’s a belief, an image or a thought-pattern. We use this map in the same way as we use a city-map to find a location. If the map is correct, we will find our location. If it is slightly incorrect, we have to correct it by new knowledge, optimize it. If it is completely incorrect or we move to another city, we have to replace the map altogether. What is happening is that we changed the map. And this is happening all the time.

Another map is the self-image or we may call it the ego. It is everything we saved about ourselves. It is the map of ourselves and we act from it. We want to improve our self-image and we use our intellectual abilities to do so: we get our desires and we set goals and work towards them. The map called the ego is a very useful map that we constantly create ourselves. But here is the important thing: it is still a map.

It’s nice to have a map, as long as you know it’s a map

Which means:

1. The map can change : which means our self-concept (the ego, who we think we are) can change and this is the basis of personal development. This changing map includes our thoughts, beliefs and actions: the whole world-view and the self-image.

2. The map is not the territory : I am not the ego, my self-image. You are not your self-image, or in other words: You and I are not who we think we are; think in the literally sense of the word: thoughts (and all other concepts) are the map, not the territory.

The important step to Spiritual Awakening is dropping the map and experiencing what is without the map.

But, (for me at least) this means not to remove the map for all time. I need the map to function in the world and to relate to everything. So I create maps and use maps in a very intense way, in the best way possible. But there is one difference: I dis-identified the map from the territory. So I know that my self-image is my self-image but not the self.

Ken Wilber called the process “Transcend and include”. Or as Genpo Roshi put it: the reason we are able to transcent the ego but still use it as a human being is that we know the Being side of the Human Being as well as the Human Side: check my posting about Personal Power vs. The Power of Now for more.

This is a Zen story I found on the website Pointing To The Moon :

“When Zen Master Nan-chuan saw his student Ma-tsu diligently practicing meditation hour after hour, he sensed a certain effort and ambition in the young monk’s demeanor, so he sneaked up behind him and asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to become a Buddha,” Ma-tsu replied proudly. Nan-chuan then picked up a stone and began rubbing it against a spare tile from the monastery floor. Hearing the sound, Ma-tsu asked, “What are you doing?” Said Nan-chuan: “I’m trying to make a mirror.” Ma-tsu had an awakening.

And it goes on:

Everything is just as it is! Ma-tsu is Ma-tsu, the tile is the tile, and you are you, just as you are. There’s no Buddha apart from this fundamental truth, and any attempt to achieve some special state of mind just leads you away from who and what you already are. In the direct approach to truth …, the direct recognition of your true nature is available in every instant, on or off the cushion, whether you meditate or not. You merely need to “take the backward step that turns your light inward to illuminate the Self,” as Dogen Zenji said.” – Stephan Bodian

About the Author

Myrko Thum

Myrko Thum is author and creator of THE SYSTEM, the holistic personal development training course based on the "Top-Down System". You can get a FREE 4 Video Intro-Course of THE SYSTEM here.

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36 Comments

  • Stephen

    November 24, 2008

    Absolutely fantastic post! I recently had a conversation with a person about some of the health related information on my blog. They wanted references and approached the conversation as if health was an intellectual debate. I told them I understood the wish to see references and that I would send them some. Which I did and have since not heard a word.

    I also tried to explain that the whole point of my blog was to present health information that is beyond the mainstream in the hope to spur others to take responsibility for their health. Force feeding people the sources of my information does nothing more then show them more of the same information. It does nothing for independent self-informing thought.

    Health like spirituality is not an intellectual debate. To make the transition from poor health to good health one must actually do something. Health is a state of being. That state of being is the moon. The words on my blog just a finger pointing the way. All the scientific research in the world is pointless if one is in poor health and one continues to do what one always has done. Meanwhile points of order are debated. It strikes me as craziness and a hiding place for those who are not yet ready to face themselves and their problems.

    Far too much we get caught up in examining the finger. As a result we don’t experience the light of the moon. As I say – fantastic post! :)

    Stephen´s last blog post: How to Look Good and Feel Great in Just 10 Minutes a Day

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  • Myrko

    November 24, 2008

    Hey Stephen! That’s a good example. Here you can say reality is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Is health getting better? Are you feeling great? Then it works, thats the desired result. Everything else is of secondary interest.

    The finger pointing to the moon is the ultimate expression to differentiate between experience and concept. Spirituality is not about concepts, it’s totally irrelevant, no not even that, it is getting in the way.

    I read some reviews on “The Power of Now” on Amazon the other day. And half of them are saying “I don’t get it, that’s been said better in other books.” What happened is they as the reader tried to understand spirituality mentally. This is just impossible, because it is about inner experience. It is not about understanding. It’s not about the finger. :)

    Thanks for a great comment Stephen.

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  • Miss MatchMaker

    November 24, 2008

    “The important step to Spiritual Awakening is dropping the map and experiencing what is without the map.” This is absolutely so very true! I often have to remind people to stop thinking and just do.

    xoxo~

    Miss MatchMaker´s last blog post: Getting what you want…

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  • Gemma

    November 24, 2008

    Fabulous post and so true … I often come across this when people ask me about my religious / spiritual beliefs and I’m trying to explain why I won’t tell them … it really isn’t a big secret but I really feel that as relevant as my ‘map’ is for me it doesn’t make it relevant for others. I drew my map from my own explorations, thats what makes it useful … however it is still just a map!

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  • Myrko

    November 24, 2008

    I consider myself rather a sientific than a religious person. If you know the movie Contact with Jodie Foster (Scientist) and Matthew McConaughey (Priest)? I’ll go with the scientist. Knowledge or belief – both are maps, if you start to go beyond them and actually experience, you don’t need neither of them for it.

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  • Logan

    November 27, 2008

    Very nice post! The ego wants to discuss and talk about the finger. If I listen to the ego it never comes to an end. I guess the point is to not listen.

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  • Evita

    December 4, 2008

    Hi Myrko!

    Great post! I too read Eckhart and his ideas are so valuable, but so are many others master’s too. It is as you say, it ALL really comes down to experience. People want proof for it all and when they don’t feel what you feel they conclude that you must be wrong. But there is such an element of personal experience.

    Now I take it all from within, whether spirituality or health, I connect with my inner spirit to figure out what resonates with my inner being (not ego) It has been an amazing tool so far, I never doubted that it would fail me ;)

    That is why I like too when many writers write, “life is not about learning, but about remembering who we really are”.

    Evita´s last blog post: The Art and Science of Meditation

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  • Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.

    December 6, 2008

    This is an awesome reminder of experiencing what is without the map. It’s a scary prospect until we pull back to the realization that we are spiritual beings have a human experience.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.´s last blog post: Don’t Let the Economic Blues Stunt Your Growth

    ReplyReply
  • Tim

    December 6, 2008

    I just ran accross your blog and am impressed. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyReply
  • Ned

    December 10, 2008

    I think a particularly good spiritual teacher can find the quickest route from the pointer to the moon for any given student. That is a skill in itself. That may be a hidden benefit of blogging and social media: sudden enlightenment.

    Great post.

    Ned´s last blog post: How to Get out of the Recession

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  • Sharyce Arciaga

    June 3, 2009

    The map is definitely not the territory. For some it can be really hard to separate the ego from spirit. First, one must recognize that the ego creates illusions that hurt and that spirit is love and truth.

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  • Sensual photography

    June 12, 2009

    I am just starting to learn that thinking is used as a device to go beyond thinking, just as a thorn can be used to take another thorn from your finger. but what are some of the thoughts he uses to go beyond thought? The finger pointing to the moon, meaning the finger is considered indication of thoughts and the moon is the real thing, but what are the thoughts that the finger represents and dont the thoughts have to be positive?

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  • Myrko

    June 16, 2009

    Maybe what you are looking for is the recognition that there is more than thinking. “This thought” is then the finger pointing to the experience of no-thought, but awareness.

    ReplyReply
  • Rune

    August 27, 2010

    Don’t think, feel!
    It is like a finger pointing away to the moon.
    Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
    - Bruce Lee quote

    :-)

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  • watchanime

    September 15, 2010

    I consider myself rather a sientific than a religious person. If you know the movie Contact with Jodie Foster (Scientist) and Matthew McConaughey (Priest)? I’ll go with the scientist. Knowledge or belief – both are maps, if you start to go beyond them and actually experience, you don’t need neither of them for it.

    ReplyReply
  • Charles Vandornn

    September 29, 2010

    Hi all. A very interesting blog. I agree with the distinction between the Ego and one’s spirit. However,IMO, a lot more needs to be addressed if one is to “grasp” what life on Earth is really all about re. each individual. I am now in my 70s. I grew up thru’ the time of the Zen explosion in America (initially) and across the Western world. As I say in the introduction to my little site, I investigated many paths, seeking “enlightenment”. One of my favorite writers was Thaddues Golas. (I still have a printout of the Lazy Man).
    Because of the path I chose to follow, I contended that Thaddues had, ( as many would-be seekers of the time had) ignored the realities of everyday living. I was not surprized that later in his life he tried to address those fundamental realities (of human suffering, evil, etc) and, as Wiki wrote:
    “. . . Later in his life, Thaddeus Golas resolved that all the theorizing which led to writing “the Guide” needed to be followed by practical observations about our more “local” reality, as a means of dealing with the many “bugs” which continued to crop up in his paradigm – post-enlightenment, so to speak… He worked on a study of love as a mere exercise in agreement with reality and the ensuing pain of maintaining structural integrity in the face of too much pleasurable vibrational agreement. A new model of practical ideas for human living emerged…voluntarily less poetic, harder to digest, but which he deemed “hard information one could rely on.”
    …Publishing these ideas proved impossible and outright contempt from his publishers over his later manuscripts led to the end of his contract at Bantam. . .”
    To my mind, his eventual findings were not as popular to seekers of truth as the over – simplified version he originally wrote. They just would not sell as well. So Bantam dropped him.
    As far as I am concerned there is definitely great truth in the death of the Ego and living in the Spirit but if this is used simply to “drop out” from dealing with everyday living in this World-Belief-System which is filled with so much human suffering, then it’s a “Cop-out” and fails to fulfil its true purpose.
    Enough for now – the moment is over. Have a great day, all. Be good – Be happy.

    ReplyReply
  • Komodo Dragon

    January 4, 2011

    I like what someone said above about calling wherever the arrow lands as the target. That may sound like indecision at first but in many situations such as experimental ventures, the target is never specific.

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  • Ottawa Web Design

    April 13, 2011

    Excellent Post. I always wonder, what finger pointing to the moon may be. Now, my mind is clear.

    ReplyReply
  • Bang On

    May 27, 2011

    Buddhists have a saying:”Don’t Mistake the Finger Pointing at the Moon for the Moon”. If the Bible is a finger pointing to the moon, God, then if you focus too much on what the Bible says, are you missing God? Should the Bible be used as a means or rather a lens to see God? Should we focus more or less on what the Bible says? And if we focus more, will we miss seeing God?

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  • Tamika Mccarraher

    July 28, 2011

    Hello there Tamika Mccarraher here. Have you ever considered writing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss at http://www.awakeblogger.com/2008/11/the-meaning-of-the-finger-pointing-to-the-moon and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

    ReplyReply
  • zenpistolero

    September 27, 2011

    It’s amazing the fight you get when you challenge someone’s preconceptions. “Prove it!” they say. “Who else thinks like you do?” they fear. When I tell someone that diet sodas can contribute to obesity, few believe me. I explain that the body detects sweetness, but there is no corresponding spike in blood sugar so the body thinks you need to eat a lot more in order to get the nutrition it needs… and some are convinced. When I say that the study was done by the medical department at Yale University, everyone stops arguing. Sheesh – it was obvious to me years ago that diet drinks, if not part of the problem, were at least not a solution.

    A lot of people believe the military is very anti-spiritual, but I received a lot of good spiritual training. Time is spent in the now. A distorted sense of reality is REALLY un-helpful, and becomes, uh… self-correcting. I find a lot of spiritual people that don’t understand what it is to have a truly open mind. In the process of intelligence gathering, you really just stare at the moon and make observations. Analysis can only be as good as my data, so intellectual honesty is paramount. Doing away with preconceptions, expectations, and opinions is really hard work. Other people’s lives depend on your ability to communicate truthfully and admit errors immediately. That was my biggest trouble readjusting to civilians, is the level of self-deception they engage in. It was hard to stay friends with people when you just want to tell them, “Stop lying to yourself – you’ll be happier.”

    I also learned the skills to merge peacefully with my environment. That was incredibly helpful for my further spiritual work. I was visiting grandparents for a couple weeks in Apache Junction, AZ and told them I would be on a rough bearing of 090 and back in four days. I walked east out of the trailer park they were staying in (Snowbirds – lol!) and into the desert. Admittedly, I was over-equipped. I carried a small knife, big knife, water filter, canteen, keffieh, wood matches, cigar, compass, pencil, and a blank piece of paper for a map. When I got to the edge of the park, I took two bearings to visible landmarks and set off to spend some meditative time.

    Knowing that you should live in the now doesn’t accomplish anything. You have to do something about it. A map of your own making requires that you carefully pay attention to your surroundings and your relation to them. Thirst and hunger serve to anchor you in the now. The question of want/need becomes easier as the answers become the same. I wasn’t going to haul a plump strawberry with me into the desert, but for dawn on the fourth day I had a ‘treat’ with me in the form of a cigar. It was incredibly delicious! (Taste is not arguable – your mileage may vary… ;-)

    DISCLAIMER: Don’t just walk into the desert without extensive training. That could easily turn into one of those distorted-sense-of-reality situations that is permanently “self-correcting”.

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  • Hugin Munin

    October 19, 2011

    Such a chorus of fingers.

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  • Monthly Cheese Club

    March 6, 2012

    Wow I never knew what it meant. I love hearing the background of things. The story is such a great lesson to be learned. Look beyond and you might see.

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  • Usha Pillai

    April 24, 2012

    The June 12, 2009 post by Sensual photography really set me thinking. How can one attain higher levels of awareness or consciousness without the use of the brain, without the process of thinking? Secondly, how does one successfully translate the process of thinking into action? What would the catalyst be?
    If the above questions were posed to a Zen master, what would the answers be?

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  • Fabricio

    July 21, 2012

    This post is superb!

    “Spirituality is all about experiencing and the truth itself.” – I think this is the best quote I’ve saw that brings me the real meaning of spirituality and in so simple words!

    I like the metaphor between Finger~Moon, Map~Territory ; its so easy how can we understand so much better when we put things in perspective like this!

    Also, i found this quote awesome: “The important step to Spiritual Awakening is dropping the map and experiencing what is without the map.”

    But it’s hard continue reading your posts because everytime I come here, I just have to add something in my favorites! hahaha :D :D

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  • Myrko

    September 14, 2012

    Usha Pillai, the key is to stop thinking and not use thinking. When you stop thinking you will feel and experience your being, which is what spirituality is all about.

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  • Sang Bo

    June 22, 2013

    Good blog, I love that Hotei is said to have carried all his worldly belongings in the big Hemp sack he carried around. Shine on all! Peace & Grace from a Tibetan friend.

    Sang Bo

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  • Aesthetic Conscience

    March 26, 2014

    Great article! I recently wrote a story about how I came to understand this concept.

    Namaste!

    ReplyReply

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