Art by John StubbsFinger Lao Zhuang

Finger pointing at the moon

Throughout known history there have been religions and there have been those who have been called to be their spokespersons. They are variously called priests, shaman, shakyas, lamas, clerics, tulkus, tenzos, patriarchs, pastors, abbots, cardinals, gurus, pandits, yogis … the list is very long. 

Regardless of title or religion, religions’ representatives serve a singular purpose:  to help others discover a spiritual life and, for those who have found it, to help foster and nurture that life. 

Of course, for such an individual to be able to advocate for a spiritual life, he or she must have discovered it for themselves, live it, and understand it.  For them, there is nothing more valuable, more meaningful and more important than this.  Worldly concerns become secondary to the reality of the spiritual once it is known, once the inner eye has seen beyond, through, and inside the phenomenal world we live in, bringing it all together into unity.

What are the implications? 

For one, we no longer see things in black and white, good and bad.  We see all phenomena as various chains of events, one leading to the other, naturally and harmoniously.  Even if those events lead to catastrophic things, like war.  We see war as a natural occurrence, as is starvation, political corruption… We see people who fight injustice, who help feed the hungry and who protest violent solutions to problems, as part of the natural consequences of poverty, injustice, and conflict.  Like a kaleidoscope, all the tiny pieces of glass, seemingly chaotic as they dance with each other, produce a beautiful image.  Until we attain a spiritual understanding, we naturally take sides wherever sides can be taken, we see black and we see white, we argue for our righteous point of view, whether it be on the one side or on the other.  The spiritual eye sees both sides alike: two sides of a coin, each dependent on the other for existence: like the seemingly chaotic motion of glass pieces tumbling in the kaleidoscope, each one shares in the whole, each one dependent on the others. 

Second, we see how people’s minds become locked in patterns of duality.  We understand it especially well because we remember our own minds before we became aware of the greater view, before our minds were unlocked.  Our efforts, as representatives of the spiritual, often involve helping people break out of their mode of conditioned, reflexive, thinking and feeling: out of the world of samsara in which they exist.  As long as one is locked in duality, the ego’s playground, one cannot see beyond the confines of the personal self to his or her greater essential nature, to nirvana.

The challenges for a spiritual spokesperson are substantial: we must somehow break into a fixed and rigid belief system.  We must somehow shed light on the bigger picture.  Yet only people who are ready for the leap, who are receptive to making a tremendous change in their lives will be able to, for it takes a tremendous act of will to detach from one’s beliefs, beliefs which have, over time, created a strong self-identity.  Destroying self-identity is perhaps the hardest thing there is to do, requiring courage, will-power and personal surrender. 

Buddhism, the fourth most popular religion in the world, is a religion of salvation: all versions of Buddhism worldwide, regardless of culture or “flavor,” hold the Buddha’s four noble truths at its foundation. 

The Buddha saw suffering as an unnecessary affliction, an illness, that had a cure, and he saw himself as someone who could both console the patient and treat him.  Just as a doctor seeing a patient for, say, an eye infection, would first identify the illness, explain the cause of the illness, explain that there is treatment for it, and then offer the treatment, such was the presentation offered by the Buddha with the four noble truths.

As if he were seeing a patient in his clinic, the Buddha simply states the problem: life is suffering, then explains that suffering has a cause, gives the patient hope by telling him that there is a remedy, and finally gives the remedy.  But instead of giving antibiotics, bandages or hot spiced tea, he gives the eightfold path.  

Of course, just as the patient with an eye-infection must be compliant in taking the course of antibiotics as prescribed, so must the patient seeking release from suffering be compliant with following the eightfold path if it’s prescribed.

A doctor would not eagerly treat a patient for an eye infection with antibiotics if the patient believed he didn’t have an eye infection or if he didn’t trust the doctor’s diagnosis.   Someone who denies they have an illness, or doesn’t trust the diagnosis or treatment, will not be participants in the treatment, and without participation, treatment will fail.  Only when the patient both acknowledges the illness, trusts the doctor (has faith in his ability to diagnose and treat correctly), and participates in the cure, will the treatment work.

One cannot understand Buddhism, or Chán, without understanding the four noble truths.  They are quintessential to all that follows, in all its myriad forms, from chanting the Buddha’s name common to Pure Land Buddhists, to the tea ceremony especially popular with Japanese Buddhists, to incense burning and bowing in supplication, common to all Buddhists. 

Anyone can be a Buddhist, but until we’ve experienced grievous suffering, sought refuge from that suffering, and found that refuge, we can’t know what it’s about.  And we certainly cannot teach others about it. Buddhism’s path is one of salvation, and until we have saved ourselves – broken out of our confined egocentric world view—we are poorly equipped to help others on that journey.

Representatives of religions ideally have experienced the awakening that comes from spiritual practice, but the reality is that many haven’t.  One of my favorite metaphors is the monk pointing at the moon.  Before a mind becomes enlightened, the mind sees a finger, and sees the moon it points to.  After enlightenment, the mind sees neither the finger nor the moon, but the universal intent that arises between the two: the message.  The unenlightened teach about the finger and about the moon, identifying all the possible views and perspectives one might.  They conceive the discursive intellect as the source of wisdom and understanding.  They focus on studying the sutras and other writings from sages as a means of understanding Buddhism.  They write books expounding their great understanding of esoteric phrases and dialogues from antique sources.  They see the finger and the moon, but they miss the point.  They have not melted into the fold of unity, have not merged being with the infinite.  They are not messengers of the spiritual, but of their own personal interpretations of the life in samsara that they live. 

The danger is that such people unknowingly misrepresent the religion they speak for, offering a personal agenda in lieu of a spiritual one.  For some, that agenda is a political one, for others, it is social justice, for others it is an agenda for power, prestige, wealth, or sex.  Narcissists are also common within religious groups—this personality disorder thrives in an environment of hegemony where they can manipulate the congregation to revere them with godly status. 

For the spiritual seeker, it is often hard, if not impossible, to determine if a spiritual representative is authentic, i.e., understands the spiritual and can help guide others.  Just like a good car salesman knows many psychological, social, and pragmatic “tricks” to manipulate one to buy a car, so does the religious representative, either consciously or unconsciously, who seeks followers for whatever personal agenda he or she may have. 

My advice for anyone looking for a spiritual teacher is to look within, not without; to be wary of anyone who says they have the answers; to be wary of anyone whose congregation eulogizes him or her; to be wary of anyone who requires payment of money for spiritual services; to be wary of anyone who boasts of themselves with titles, plaques, certificates or other credentials.

Ultimately, there is only one spiritual guide: the Self.  Any priest, cleric, yogi, master, guru, or shaman who understands the nature of the spiritual understands this.  For them, they can only offer a finger pointing to the moon.  It’s not the moon.  It’s not the finger.  What is it?