Reverend's Message - November 2014

Socks, Finger and Moon

Rev. Dean Koyama

When Sakyamuni was about to enter nirvana, he said to the bhiksus, "From this day on, rely on the dharma, not on people who teach it. Rely on the meaning, not on the words. Rely on wisdom, not on the working of the mind…. " For example, a person instructing us by pointing to the moon with his finger is like looking at the finger and not at the moon. The person would say, "I am pointing to the moon with my finger in order to show it to you. Why do you look at my finger and not the moon?"
Kyogyoshinsho, CWS., p. 241

Many years ago I was trying to get my then two-and-a-half year old dressed. We were in the living room and he had taken his socks off earlier. I asked him to pick up his socks from the floor and bring them to me so that I could put them on. My son looked around and asked, "Where?" I pointed with my finger and calmly said, "They are in front of the sofa." So my son goes by the side of the sofa, looks around the side and back, and again asks, "Where?" Once again, I point and say, "In front of the sofa. Where? On the floor right in front of you. Where? Look down by your feet. He looks down and just two inches in front of his left foot are his socks. But he still is not looking in the right place. Where? Look at my finger! Your socks are right there on the floor next to your feet! He looks at my finger pointing, and then moves toward the back of the sofa again. Where? Come back to the front of the sofa." He obediently does so. Now I gave these easy directions that any two year old should be able to follow: "Look at my finger and see where I'm pointing. Your socks are right there five degrees to the north of your feet!"

He looks at my finger pointing in the direction of his socks, and promptly goes again back to the side of the sofa and looks behind. He then looks at me questioningly, "Where?" AAAUUGGH!! "I GIVE UP!!!" And I get up and get the socks myself. My son just giggled.

According to Nagarjuna's parable of the Finger and the Moon: We have been wandering lost in the darkness looking only downward and unaware of the moon that shines brightly in the night sky. Not until someone taps us on our shoulder and points with his finger, "Look at the Moon," do we see the moon for the first time. The moon represents the ultimate value of truth, the absolute, suchness or Enlightenment. The finger represents the vehicle, the means or the teachings. The finger is the guide to the moon. If we get stuck looking just at the finger we cannot see the moon. The finger is not the moon. However, without the light from the moon, we cannot see the finger.

In 1952, the then Monshu and Lady Kosho Otani made their first tour of the Buddhist temples in the United States and presented the Go-honzon (Central object of the altar) a pictured scroll of Amida Buddha to the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple. The scroll was used at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1954 and later was enshrined into the new altar in 1955. However, the altar used to house the picture scroll of Amida Buddha was actually designed to house a statue. Through the generosity of a donor, on the occasion for the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple's Centennial Anniversary on October 18, 2014, we have enshrined a new statue of Amida Buddha.

When the idea of placing a statue of Amida into the altar was first proposed, there was great resistance. Many were afraid that the message that we would be sending was that Buddhist worshipped idols and that Amida would be thought of and looked upon as a God or Deity. Some even quoted Rennyo Shonin who is to have said, "Instead of the statue of Amida, the picture scroll of Amida is preferred, and instead of the picture scroll of Amida the six-character name of Namo Amida Butsu should be used," as their argument not to have a statue.

I have to admit, when I first began my studies of Jodo Shinshu, I, too, preferred Rennyo's sentiment of having the 6-character scroll of Namo Amida Butsu. But after 25 years of ministry, I have come to re-think this. I use a portable O-Butsudan (Buddhist altar) at the cemetery. The Go-honzon has the Chinese characters of Namo Amida Butsu on one side and a picture of Amida on the other side. When I first began using this Go-honzon I would have the Namo Amida Butsu side face the family. Invariably, someone would come up to me after the service and ask, "What do those squiggles on that stand mean?" I realized that not everyone is able to read Japanese Kanji characters for Namo Amida Butsu and even after I told them, they still looked puzzled. They didn't know what that meant either. And as more and more of our members do not read or write Japanese how will they or anyone else coming to the temple for the first time, find a connection to the Buddha-dharma if all they see are squiggly lines?

In early Pure Land Buddhism, a statue was used to help one focus, concentrate, contemplate, visualize and meditate upon specific features of the Buddha. It was considered that if one were able to visualize these features whether one's eyes were open or closed, one was considered to be a step closer to attaining enlightenment. If a statue was not available, a picture scroll was used. So the original purpose of the statue or picture was to help lead us to Enlightenment. Much later, Honen, Shinran's teacher, advocated that because these meditative practices are so difficult, very few are able to accomplish them. Therefore, the Buddha out of his heart of compassion, wisely selected the simple practice of reciting the Buddha's name, Namo Amida Butsu, as the cause of eventual Enlightenment for the many. In our Jodo Shinshu temples, the backs of the scrolls and statues are stamped with the words Hoben Hosshin meaning "Dharma Body of Expedient Means," to remind us that the scroll or statue is ultimately just a scroll or statue. But one should still treat them with utmost respect because they can become the tool to help us focus our minds and bodies towards the truth of the Buddha-Dharma.

In order to talk about Enlightenment, Sakyamuni Buddha had to use expressions that unenlightened beings could understand. The terms Wisdom and Compassion are within the realm of our human understanding and emotions. Wisdom and Compassion are very dynamic elements of Life itself, and I think the statue helps to remind me of that fact. For me, when I see the statue of the Amida Buddha, I am reminded that I must pursue the truth of Namo Amida Butsu with my whole being. The statue is a reminder that the issues that Buddhism deals with are about our life.

In this parable, the important elements are not limited to just the finger and the moon. There is one more element that we need to consider. That is the gap or space between the finger and the moon. Where the moon represents the ultimate, the absolute, truth or Enlightenment, and the finger is the teachings of Amida Buddha, the sutras, the words, Namo Amida Butsu, we also have to make a connection crossing over the gap. According to the Late Professor Takamaro Shigaraki Sensei, the gap is filled by our individual practice on the Buddha's Path. In other words, simply studying the words or teachings and understanding them with our head or intellect do not achieve the essence of the Buddha's Enlightenment. That is focusing only on the finger. It must be understood by our whole being utilizing all of our 6 senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch and consciousness) to cross over the gap and see the moon.

My 2-year-old son was only focusing on my finger not making the connection and failed to find his socks. Making the connection is an important point. Perhaps for some, especially those that have pursued the Buddha-Dharma for some time, the 6-character scroll is enough. But for others especially those who are being introduced to Namo Amida Butsu for the first time, we have to start with a point of reference that is appropriate to one's ability to understand. Having Namo Amida Butsu take a human form reminds us that the very purpose of Namo Amida Butsu is to live our human lives in appreciation for that very Wisdom and Compassion that enhances, sustains, embraces and never abandons those who continue to be unenlightened.

It is not a question of "Which is correct to have: a statue, picture scroll or the characters of Namo Amida Butsu." They are all correct. What matters is if we can make that connection from the statue, scroll or Namo Amida Butsu to the Unobstructed Wisdom and Immeasurable Compassion of Life itself.

Namo Amida Butsu
Rev. Dean Koyama


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