Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Fingers and Moons

“All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.” — Buddha

I can imagine the Buddha, seated in the Jeta Grove, his hand outstretched pointing towards the moon… and all of his students gazing intently at his finger. I can even imagine one or two of them looking towards the moon, and thinking something like “so, the Dharma is somewhere on the moon, then.”

For many years of my youth my eye was locked on a finger… we called it the Bible. We had gone so far in our fixation to believe it was the literal truth of God, that it had all but replaced God. Jesus and his teachings, another finger pointing at the moon, had also been deified to replace God… our gaze was once again fixed on the finger, not the moon.

When I stepped back and began to see how the conservative Christian church I grew up in treated the Bible, symbols such as the cross, and even Jesus himself, I found a word for it within that tradition… Idolatry. This was probably one of my first steps down the path of heresy… before I had ever learned anything about Buddha, fingers, or even the moon.

I think while there is a profound teaching in this quote from the Buddha, there is also a second teaching that Buddha implies but does not address. The one that is obvious is a call away from Idolatry. Buddha did not want anyone to make a God of him… did not want to confuse him, the teacher, with the lesson being taught. On the road after his awakening, he denied his divinity twice, and then simply admitted to being awake to the world around him…and set to teaching others how to do the same.

I think Jesus was very close to the Buddha in this respect. “Who do you say I am?” is certainly not a resounding claim of Deity. Jesus was teaching us a way to be in the world, a way to live with each other in peace and right relationship, to live openhearted and yet stand for justice.

Much of the conservative Christian church has, I believe, become so fixated on the finger that was Jesus does generic imitrex work that they have never even looked at the moon… at the divine truth in the message he brought.

Sadly, the same has happened in some schools of Buddhism. Or Islam… Or Judaism…

Heck, it happens in Unitarian Universalism. I have several times run into individuals who wanted to Deify Thoreau… or more often Deify the concept of Justice.

Fingers pointing at the moon.

But there is another teaching implied in this quote from the Buddha… and that is that there can be more than one finger pointing at the same moon. In essence, there are many different paths, many different teachings, many different religious traditions all pointing to the same nebulous areas of the divine… all pointing towards the moon. Each of these “fingers” gaze from slightly different perspectives, and see different aspects of the larger than life “moon”. While we learn deeply about what is divine in this universe by going deeply in one or two traditions (fingers), if we ignore what the other faith traditions are seeing we are ignoring much of the complex, dynamic and wonderful reality that is divine, that is God. Or Dharma… take your pick.

Instead, we become locked in a cycle of aggression around whose finger is right, and whose fingers are wrong. Whose religion is right, and whose is wrong.

I am not saying that all religions and religious traditions are the same… far from it. Each is very different, unique, and each is pointing in a slightly different way. Each speaks to different people for different reasons. Yet, I do believe that many of them have grasped aspects of the same truth, and that while we may be able to connect with that truth best through going deeply into one tradition, we gain better understanding if we at least gaze a bit in the direction of each of the fingers.

The idolatry of today is not a golden calf, but often a golden leafed scripture, or a golden domed building, or an imagined and exclusive golden ticket to heaven.

Idolatry is to see the finger, worship the finger, and completely miss seeing the beautiful and awe inspiring reality of “the moon”… of God… of the Dharma… of the transcending nature of all reality… of the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.

Idolatry is to fixate on the finger, and never see the moon.

Yours in Faith,


4 Thoughts on “Fingers and Moons

  1. Patrick McLaughlin on Saturday January 19, 2008 at 10:25 +0000 said:

    So, in short… when a prophet gives you the finger, pay attention.

  2. Hah!!!! If only I could make that into a bumpersticker….

    Beautiful Patrick… you made my morning!

    But pay attention to what he is pointing at… and not the finger itself so much!

    Some things money can buy… for everything else, there are fellow Meadville Students.

  3. Hi David –

    Something to reflect on: if Jesus makes no claim to deity, what are we to make of a statement like that made by him in John’s gospel, Chapter 14, verses 6-9?

    Also consider his use of the divine name, the “I AM”, and the response of conservative Jews, in John 8: 58,59.

    Indeed, all the “I am” statements of Jesus are worth careful reflection.

    God bless you.

  4. Ken,

    Thank you for posting!

    I have a different view of the Gospel of John than most, coming out of my undersanding of its origin and the purpose for which it was written. Let us say that I am likely to take anything in the Gospel of John with a grain of salt, unless it is supported by the other Canonical and Non-canonical Gospels. As a Unitairan Universalist Christian, my understanding of scripture is different than many other Christians, in that I do not accept its inerrancy or divine authorship, but rather that it must be consistant with other sources in order to be authoritative.

    There are several books that highlight my issues with the Gospel of John, but the one I would recommend to you (for its compelling argument, its excellent scholarship, and its easy to read nature) is the book “Beyond Belief” by Dr. Elaine Pagals. I believe she makes a compelling argument that the Gospel of John was written not as an objective accounting fo the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but actually to counter a different school of Christian thought that was developing around the Gospel of Thomas.

    If you have not read the Gospel of Thomas, I commend it to you as well. I will admit I am much more influenced by it than by the Gospel of John.

    Thank you for your engagement! I know that for many of my fellow Christians I am something of a heretic… such is part of why I am a Unitairan Universalist. But I love the engagement. I will leave you with a bit of scripture…

    From Luke 9

    18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
    19 So they answered and said, “John the Baptist, but some say Elijah; and others say that one of the old prophets has risen again.”
    20 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
    Peter answered and said, “The Christ (which means “Annointed”) of God.”
    21 And He strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”

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