Art by John StubbsFinger Lao Zhuang

Updated, January, 2018

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 often given titles such as priest, shaman, shakya, lama, cleric, tulku, patriarch, pastor, abbot, cardinal, guru, pandit, and yogi, to name a few.
Regardless of title or religious faith, religions’ representatives serve a singular spiritual purpose: to help others discover a spiritual life for themselves and, for those who have found it, to help foster and nurture that life.

Of course, for a spiritual representative to be able to advocate for a spiritual life, he or she must have discovered it for themselves, lived it, and come to understand it. For them, there is nothing more valuable and meaningful than this. Worldly concerns become secondary in relation to the spiritual once it is known, once the inner eye has seen beyond, through, and inside the phenomenal world of mundane existence.
What do we mean by an “inner eye” and what does it see?

The inner eye perceives phenomena as interconnected chains of events, one leading to the other, naturally and harmoniously, even if they lead to catastrophic events, like war. The inner eye sees war, poverty, corruption, disease, and despair as natural occurrences, each with its own causes and effects. It recognizes that people who fight injustice, who help feed the hungry, and who protest violent solutions to problems, are all consequences of poverty, injustice, and conflict. Like a kaleidoscope, all the tiny pieces of glass, seemingly chaotic as they dance together, collectively produce a beautiful unifying image of completeness. Until we attain a spiritual understanding, we naturally take sides wherever sides can be taken, we see good and we see evil, and we argue for our righteous point of view, whether it be on one side or the other. We see the parts without seeing the whole. The inner eye sees both sides alike, as two sides of a coin, each dependent on the other for its existence. Like the seemingly chaotic motion of glass pieces tumbling in a kaleidoscope, independently, there appears chaos; but collectively, each one shares in the whole, each one dependent on the others, cascading in a complex dance of cause and effect that yields beautiful unity.

The challenges for a spiritual spokesperson, one who has awakened her or his inner eye, are substantial, but her objective as a representative of this alternate way of seeing is singular: to help other’s get there too. Yet, only people who are ready, who are receptive to making a tremendous change in their lives, will succeed with this, for it takes tremendous willpower to detach from our beliefs, beliefs which have, over time, created a self-identity. Dissolving self-identity is perhaps the hardest thing there is to do, requiring courage, will-power and personal surrender. For most of us, it requires that our lives are in a mess that we desperately want to get out of. When our lives are in jeopardy, we are capable of most anything. Including Chan.

Buddhism, the fourth most popular religion in the world, is a religion of salvation. It’s purpose is to transport a devotee out of the hell of samsara. Most all versions of Buddhism worldwide, regardless of culture or “flavor,” hold the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths at its core.

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, the Buddha offered similar guidance in the form of a medical diagnosis and treatment. As if he were seeing a patient in his clinic, he states the problem: life is suffering, then explains that suffering has a cause, then 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 the Eightfold Path, if 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, or possibly even make the illness worse. The treatment will only work 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.

We cannot understand Buddhism, or Chán, without understanding the Four Noble Truths. They are quintessential to all Buddhism, in most all its presentations.

Anyone can be a Buddhist, but until we’ve experienced grievous suffering, sought refuge from that suffering, and found that refuge, we can’t truly know what it’s about, and thus cannot teach others about it. Buddhism’s path of salvation, requires that we first save ourselves--break out of a confined egocentric world view. Until we have succeeded with this, just as a calculus teacher cannot teach calculus effectively unless he understands it himself, so too will we be poorly equipped to help others on that journey.

Representatives of religions have, ideally, experienced the awakening that comes from spiritual practice. Many, however, have not. One of my favorite metaphors is the monk pointing at the moon. Before a mind becomes enlightened (spiritually awakened), the mind sees a finger, and sees the moon it points to. After enlightenment, the mind sees the 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 as one might. Believing that the intellect is the source of wisdom and understanding, they focus on studying sutras and other sacred writings as a means for understanding Buddhism. These people may also write books expounding their understanding of esoteric phrases and dialogues from antique sources. They see the finger and the moon, but 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 samsaric life in which they live.

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 may be fighting for social justice or political causes. Others become religious spokespersons seeking power, prestige, wealth, or sex, using the office to attract people to their egoistic agendas. Narcissists are also common within religious groups: people with narcissistic personality disorder thrive in an environment of hegemony which enables them to manipulate the congregation to receive the reverence and obedience they desire.

For the spiritual seeker, it is often hard, if not impossible, to determine if a spiritual representative is authentic, i.e., understands the spiritual realm and can help guide others to it. Just like a good car salesman knows many psychological, social, and pragmatic “tricks” to manipulate customers into buying a car, some religious representatives may, either consciously or unconsciously, do similar things to attract followers to achieve some personal gain.

My advice for anyone looking for a spiritual teacher is to look within first, and to be wary of anyone who claims they have the answers. Walk away from teachers whose congregations eulogize them, and be wary of anyone who requires payment of money for spiritual services. Be especially cautious of anyone who boasts of their titles, plaques, certificates or other credentials.

Ultimately, there is only one spiritual guide: the Self. Anyone who has become spiritually-awakened understands this. They can offer a finger pointing to the moon, but it’s not about the moon and it’s not about the finger. It requires our inner-eye to understand. The Chan priest can point, but it’s up to us to see.