Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Finger or the Moon?

There is a proverb or saying in Zen Buddhism to the effect that a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.

This saying (or metaphor) comes up in several contexts, but the recurring message is that the words or teachings of Zen are not the same as Zen itself. So, it is sometimes said that, when the student finally sees the moon, there is no longer any need for the pointing finger.

I recently gained a new appreciation for this metaphor during a Quaker retreat on "spiritual formation." In a session on learning to listen, the leader of the session pointed out that all of the words we use to describe our spiritual experiences are only metaphors for the experiences, and that the words themselves are often inadequate. To listen to the spiritual experiences of another person, we must therefore learn to look past the metaphors and work to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other person. We must look to find the moon, and not be distracted by the pointing finger.

For many years, I did not use the word "God" in my own discussions of my faith, because the image of the "God" I learned in my youth was not the God I wanted to talk about now. In the Sunday School of my youth, I envisioned God as an old man sitting on a throne in the sky, passing judgments on humans and intervening in events on earth to favor the "good" and punish the "evil." I do not think of God in that way now, either in terms of his appearance or his actions.

A turning point for me was when I realized that other members of my Quaker meeting had the same misgivings about the meaning of the word "God" that I had. When I realized that the word "God" itself was just a metaphor for whatever it is that we revere, and that many people were struggling with their own understanding of "God" and were aware that not everyone else shared their ideas of God, I started using the word again. I decided it was all right to use the word as a short-hand for something that most people knew was more complicated than a single word could easily convey, and that enough people understood "God" as a bundle of ideas and not a fixed thing.

All of which illustrates the problem of communicating between different faiths and different cultures. The words we use for some of the most important ideas in our lives are based in metaphors, and not dictionary definitions. When we hear another person speak of God, or Allah, or the Tao, or Buddha, or even Jesus, we should try to see the moon, not the finger.

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