The Pointer, a little bit of Zen to help with EBT's

The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.

“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”

With that the teacher called his happy dog.

“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.

“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.

“He’s looking at your finger.”

“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”


Hee hee. That was the Zen compromise, because by the time of Zen, it had to deal with “Hinayana” abhidharma, Pure Land, Yogacara, Madhyamika etc etc. Hard to see the relevance of that finger to EBT, which was already long forgotten by the time Hui Neng allegedly came up with that simile.


Maybe you have not lived among Buddhist communities, please correct me if i am wrong. Sects/ Whatever division one can apply to various buddhist practices have caused a lot of arguments, harsh speech and voilence in a lot of Buddhist countries and continues till this day, each trying to convince you they are the best, and you should put on their robes, and that the other one does not understand anything. This is particularly visible when they are trying to bring Buddhism to the west and between the South Asian(Thailand, Bhutan, etc) and East Asian(Tibet, China, Japan), therefore learn from everyone.

1 Like

Thankfully, the EBT fans here do not seem to have any “fundamentalists” tendencies in trumpeting EBT triumphalism. What this grouping here is trying to do is trying to trace the earliest testaments to the Buddha’s teachings.

Which was the source of my jibe with Hui Neng’s simile; my mentioning the schools was not to cause divisiveness, but to acknowledge the bewildering divisions that Hui Neng had to deal with. Had he had the good fortune to have lived in our times with access to this site, he might not even have needed to point at the moon.


Here it’s useful to know some background about this simile, because most people who are into Zen also mistakenly think it’s a Zen thing. It’s not really a Zen thing, although it was picked up by Zen. It’s actually a simile from Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism that appeared in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, and it is not about sectarianism.

The Laṅkāvatāra uses many illustrations about the moon, which generally symbolizes the Tathāgatagarbha, or true empty nature of the mind. The following excerpts are from Suzuki’s old translation.

The first appearance is in a long series of questions asked in verse, in which we see:

Why is the world like a vision and a dream? How does it resemble the city of the Gandharvas? Why it is to be regarded as like a mirage, or like the moon reflected in water? Pray tell me.

Later in the sūtra, we see the metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon:

The [Tathagatagarbha] is indeed united with the seven Vijnanas; when this is adhered to, there arises duality, but when rightly understood, duality ceases. The mind, which is the product of intellection since beginningless time, is seen like a mere image; when things are viewed as they are in themselves, there is neither objectivity nor its appearance. As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth. The Citta dances like a dancer; the Manas resembles a jester; the [Mano-] vijnana together with the five [Vijnanas] creates an objective world which is like a stage.

The following passage uses the moon metaphor in terms of “shining” awareness.

After being at the stage of Dharma-Cloud, he reaches as far as the stage of Tathagatahood where the flowers of the Samadhis, powers, self-control, and psychic faculties are in bloom. After reaching here, in order to bring all beings to maturity, he shines like the moon in water, with varieties of rays of transformation. Perfectly fulfilling the [ten] inexhaustible vows, he preaches the Dharma to all beings according to their various understandings. As the Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas, Mahamati, have entered into suchness, they attain the body which is free from the will and thought-constructions.

Throughout the sūtra there are many illustrations given about the moon and the water. Generally we can say:

  1. The water is the sea of suffering.
  2. The reflections seen in the water are illusory reality.
  3. The finger pointing at the moon is the scriptures.
  4. The moon itself is the Tathāgatagarbha.
  5. The rays of the moon are correct awareness / observation.

Unlike so many Zen people of today, the early Chan Buddhists were mostly fully-ordained monastics who endeavored in their study of the sūtras. They often used illustrations from these texts and did so with the expectation that others would automatically understand the references without any explanation needed. Many of the fundamental ideas in Zen were just taken from Mahāyāna sūtras.

There are many other variations on these sort of moon-and-water illustrations. For example, the popular image of Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva seated on a rock, overlooking the water, is also about observing the mind, and here the water is also the sea of suffering. Avalokitasvara is the Mahāyāna bodhisattva of meditative observation.

As for the Laṅkāvatāra itself, there are myths about Bodhidharma handing down the Laṅkāvatāra of four fascicles to the second patriarch Huike, but those are basically just myths. In fact, Bodhidharma was sometimes mistaken for or conflated with the translator of the Laṅkāvatāra of four fascicles (T 670), the 5th century Indian monk Guṇabhadra.

Especially notable for this forum, Guṇabhadra not only translated Mahāyāna Tathāgatagarbha and Yogācāra texts such as the Laṅkāvatāra, but also translated our entire Saṃyukta Āgama (T 99), which is now one of the most important extant EBT’s, period. Guṇabhadra knew the Saṃyukta Āgama and translated the entire collection, but he still advocated Mahāyāna and was known as a 摩訶衍法師 or “Mahāyāna Dharma Preacher,” the class of teachers who developed and propagated the Mahāyāna sūtras.


@llt: Thank you. That is interesting. I previously thought, that the finger/moon metaphor originated from the Surangama Sutra:

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? He mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon." 2:61

But given the somewhat dubious authenticity of that sutra, which some scholars regard as a chinese apocryphal text, the Lankavatara Sutra would be regarded as the ‘original’ source?

1 Like

It seems relevant when English translations (the finger) are confused for the actual Pali (the moon).

Since there is “trying”, the finger may not point to the moon but to elsewhere. :slight_smile:

The Lankavatara Sutra, like most Mahayana sutras, was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit:

According to Asanga Tillekharatna, “it is generally believed that the sutra was compiled during 350-400 CE,” although “many who have studied the sutra are of opinion that the introductory chapter and the last two chapters were added to the book at a later period.”[7] A number of ancient translations of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra were made from Sanskrit into the Chinese language, as early as the 3rd century CE with a translation by the Indian monk Dharmarakṣa.[8] Of these, only three are now extant.ṅkāvatāra_Sūtra#History_and_editions

D. T. Suzuki’s English translation of the Lankavatara Sutra was from the Sanskrit original:

When the Buddha of the Lankavatara and Surangama sutras refers to his teachings as a finger pointing to the moon of enlightenment, this is no different from the Buddha of the Pali canon referring to his teachings as a provisional raft to the other shore.

I haven’t read the whole thread, but I believe there is a Dhammapada:

than if there were thousands
of meaningless words is
that on hearing
brings peace.

than if there were thousands
of meaningless verses is
that on hearing
brings peace.

And better than chanting hundreds
of meaningless verses is
that on hearing
brings peace. Dhp 100

with metta