You stop to point at the moon in the sky

by Ryokan

English version by Sam Hamill
Original Language Japanese

You stop to point at the moon in the sky,
but the finger's blind unless the moon is shining.

One moon, one careless finger pointing --
are these two things or one?

The question is a pointer guiding
a novice from ignorance thick as fog.

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
No moon, no finger -- nothing there at all.

-- from The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library), Edited by Sam Hamill / Edited by J. P. Seaton

<<Previous Poem | More Poems by Ryokan |


/ Photo by insyros /


View All Poems by Ryokan

Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Here Ryokan is using a common teaching metaphor in Zen Buddhism -- the finger pointing at the moon. But what is being said with this imagery?

The awakened state reveals itself as a shining light, as a luminescence permeating the still field of the mind. There is a sense of light from an undefined "above," silence, a fullness of vitality, and deep rest.

In sacred poetry, particularly in Zen poetry, this is often expressed as the full moon in the night sky.

The full moon is Buddha-mind. It is the soft light that illumines the land below when all is at rest.

The finger is that which directs our awareness to the full moon -- the teacher, the tradition, one's religion, holy scriptures, spiritual practices.

Zen wisdom reminds us not to mistake the finger for the moon. While those "pointers" may be worthy of deep respect, we must never become so enamored that we forget the shining Goal to which they point...

But Ryokan takes this teaching a step further:

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
No moon, no finger -- nothing there at all.

In the radical awareness of total Unity ("One moon, one careless finger pointing -- / are these two things or one?"), it becomes a foolish mental game to artificially distinguish between the moon and the pointing finger. One is not separate from the other... or anything else. Every thing loses its thing-ness, until, "No moon, no finger -- nothing there at all." We are, at last left, with the wide open mystery that "calls and calls."



Recommended Books: Ryokan

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan Haiku: The Gentle Art of Disappearing Between the Floating Mist: Poems of Ryokan
More Books >>





You stop to point