A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Recently, I came across someone who was very angry at religion. I do not know the details or the reason for his anger. But, it was intense and heartfelt. He said he wants nothing more do with religion of any form. Like many folk, this young man was seeking truth and had looked to religion to provide it. Religion had failed him. Religion had promised much, yet failed to deliver. It is not an uncommon experience.

Perhaps we expect too much from religion. After all, religion is merely a sign pointing away from itself toward a greater reality. Our trouble arises when we mistake the sign for the thing signified.

There is a beautiful little Zen story that many find helpful:

The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”
The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”
Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”
“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”∗

Religion, like words, is merely a finger. If I could talk to my young friend I would sympathize with him and tell him I have often shared his disappointment with religion. Yet, religion isn’t “it.” Religion will always disappoint if we mistake it for Reality. It doesn’t help that religion often makes a claim to be truth. It is an arrogant claim that has caused a great deal of suffering.

The mystics have told us that once we know Reality we can dispense with the sign. I long for the day. As it is, I suspect most of us still need the sign to point us in the right direction. But, let’s keep the sign in its place!