“I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

Also found as “I am but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.”

The first version is found all over the web. The version with “but” seems originally to come from Carolyn Myss’ 2002 book, “Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential.” She’s repeated the quote in another of her books. In the earlier book she ascribes it to the semi-mythic 5th to 6th century Buddhist missionary, Bodhidharma, while later she states this was something that both the Buddha and Bodhidharma said.

Zen teachers often say that the teachings are like a finger pointing at the moon. The finger is useful because of what it points us toward, not as an object of study for its own sake.

I haven’t found any record of Bodhidharma having used this analogy, and in any event I’m pretty sure he would have stuck with the tradition of saying it was the teachings that were like a pointing finger, and not himself.

The historical Buddha did compare his Dharma (teachings, practices) as a raft to help get us to the far shore, there to be abandoned. But he said nothing about the Dharma being a finger pointing at the moon or anything else. It’s a good analogy, though, and I’d imagine he would have used it had it occurred to him.

In the Mahayana Sutras the Buddha is portrayed as having used this or a similar analogy. In the Lankavatara (compiled in something like the 3rd to 4th centuries — that is, hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha) there’s the following:

Be not like the one who looks at the finger-tip. For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at; in like manner, Mahāmati, the people belonging to the class of the ignorant and simple-minded, like those of a childish group, are unable even unto their death to abandon the idea that in the finger-tip of words there is the meaning itself, and will not grasp ultimate reality because of their intent clinging to words which are no more than the finger-tip to them.

There’s no mention of the moon here, but this is essentially the same analogy.

In an even later scripture, the Shurangama, we find the entire analogy:

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Although the Lankavatara and Shurangama both have their origins in Indian Buddhism, the finger/moon analogy really took off in the world of Zen Buddhism. There’s a Zen text called the “Finger Pointing at the Moon” (Shigetsu Roku) and almost always when you hear this quote it’s associated with Zen.

If you’re a traditional Mahayanist who believes that the Buddha literally uttered the words of texts like the Lankavatara and Shurangama, then the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy is a genuine Buddha quote. But these are not words that, as far as we know, the historical Buddha used.

12 thoughts on ““I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.””

    1. Ah, indeed. The quote could have been attributed to Bodhidharma after it appeared in the Shurangama. All I’ve seen is that his finger/moon quote is supposed to go back to a conversation he had with the Emperor Wu. I’ve no idea where that encounter is supposed to be documented.

      1. The Emperor Wu episode is famous but contains no reference to moon nor one to finger in any version I’ve ever read. (Part of it forms the first case in the Blue Cliff Record, one of the chief koan collections.) Basically the Emperor asks Bodhidharma three questions and receives three shocking answers – no moon though. It’s mentioned here (minus one of the questions) and is described as having a source that postdates the Shurangama:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_legends_about_Emperor_Wu_of_Liang#The_emperor.27s_encounter_with_Bodhidharma

        I guess my question would then be, what is the source of the _claim_ that Bodhidharma mentioned the moon-and-finger? My guess would be someone who had dabbled a little in Zen and misremembered when they were writing their own opuscule.

        1. Found a version that I’ve not seen before. Looks like the Blue Cliff version is heavily altered.

          http://zennist.typepad.com/zenfiles/2017/01/what-merit-have-we-gained.html

          “Emperor Wu came out of the city to welcome him personally. He had [Bodhidharma] ascend to the audience hall and asked the Venerable, “What teachings to convert beings have you brought from the other country?” Great Master Dharma replied, “I have not brought a single word.” The emperor asked, “What merit have We gained in having monasteries built and people saved, scriptures copied and statues cast?” The Great Master responded, “No merit whatsoever.” He replied [further], “It is is contrived (saṃsṛkta) goodness, not true merit.” Emperor Wu was a man of ordinary nature and did not understand. And so [Bodhidharma] left that country” (Wendi L. Adamek, The Mystique of Transmission, pp. 311–312).

          1. The finger pointing analogy is found in Chapter 3 of the Lankavatara, which is earlier than the Shurangama and definitely predated Bodhidharma:

            Be not like the one who looks at the finger-tip. For instance, Mahāmati, when a man with his finger-tip points at something to somebody, the finger-tip may be taken wrongly for the thing pointed at; in like manner, Mahāmati, the people belonging to the class of the ignorant and simple-minded, like those of a childish group, are unable even unto their death to abandon the idea that in the finger-tip of words there is the meaning itself, and will not grasp ultimate reality because of their intent clinging to words which are no more than the finger-tip to them.

            No mention of the moon here, but it’s essentially the same analogy.

  1. Also (realization slowly dawns) what are the chances that something said by Bodhidharma in China made it back to India to get written into a Mahayana sutra, which was then brought to China?

    1. Although if even parts of the Shurangama were composed in China, it could be that something Bodhidharma had said was incorporated into the sutra. Perhaps that’s not likely, though. I’m more inclined to go with your earlier thought that the quote from the sutra was later attributed to him.

  2. “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon….
    Don’t concentrate on the finger,
    Or you will miss all the heavenly glory.”

    Bruce Lee
    Enter the dragon
    1973

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