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 are two relevant passages. The first is as follows:
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.
The second reference (and thanks to a reader for pointing this out to me) refers to both the finger and the moon:
As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth. (p.193, of the Lankavatara Sutra, translated by DT Suzuki)
In an even later scripture, the Shurangama, we also 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.
24 thoughts on ““I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.””
It’s from section 2 of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra:
The sutra attributes the statement to the Buddha. You and I know that Mahayana sutras are not guides to what the Buddha said, but there are those who will argue the point.
Thanks, but doesn’t the appearance of the Shurangama post-date Bodhidharma’s death?
Probably, but what’s the source text for the Bodhidharma usage? I haven’t managed to track it down.
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.
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:
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.
Found a version that I’ve not seen before. Looks like the Blue Cliff version is heavily altered.
“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).
The finger pointing analogy is found in Chapter 3 of the Lankavatara, which is earlier than the Shurangama and definitely predated Bodhidharma:
No mention of the moon here, but it’s essentially the same analogy.
I suspect I am the one (or one of them) who misremembered! Apologies for introducing confusion.
Great update to the OP!
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?
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.
“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.”
Enter the dragon
Haha, that’s the proper source, according to Mi.
Hi, in chapter 6, p.193, of the Lankavatara Sutra, translated by DT Suzuki, there is a verse that goes,
“As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth.”
Thank you! I don’t know how I missed that one. I’ll edit the article accordingly.
Interestingly, it is also found in St. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” published in stages; this part was written around 397 AD.
“On Christian Doctrine”: Preface:
3. To reply briefly to all these. To those who do not understand what is here set down, my answer is, that I am not to be blamed for their want of understanding. It is just as if they were anxious to see the new or the old moon, or some very obscure star, and I should point it out with my finger: if they had not sight enough to see even my finger, they would surely have no right to fly into a passion with me on that account. As for those who, even though they know and understand my directions, fail to penetrate the meaning of obscure passages in Scripture, they may stand for those who, in the case I have imagined, are just able to see my finger, but cannot see the stars at which it is pointed. And so both these classes had better give up blaming me, and pray instead that God would grant them the sight of their eyes. For though I can move my finger to point out an object, it is out of my power to open men’s eyes that they may see either the fact that I am pointing, or the object at which I point.
Thank you, Adrian. That’s absolutely fascinating!
This entire conversation is about the finger.
Fingers are useful things. Worth discussing, sometimes.
The analogy of the finger pointing to the moon is similar the statement of Jesus Christ about the Scriptures pointing to Him in John 5:39-40 NKJV ” You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”
The problem of our attention being diverted from direct experience to intellectualizing is a universal one, apparently!
But sadly, intellectualization too often delays, or offsets, the experience of the reality it ponders.
That is the problem. Thinking about something becomes a substitute for actually experiencing it.
Immediately, reading the article, I thought of Biblical literalism. I have thoroughly enjoyed the post and comment thread, thank you.