In the above segment showing an exchange from the film Enter the Dragon (1973), Bruce Lee famously explains to his young student:
"It is like a finger, pointing a way to the moon . . .
Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory!"
In doing so, the groundbreaking film brought into the popular awareness an ancient principle which was recorded in writing at least as early as the inscription of the text of the Shurangama Sutra, which according to tradition was translated into Chinese in AD 705 from an ancient Indian sutra or scripture (sutras are writings, as opposed to other sacred teachings which were not written down but memorized and passed verbally from generation to generation).
As discussed in this essay by Professor Ron Epstein, published in 1976, there is some controversy over whether or not the Shurangama Sutra is actually a translation of an older sutra or whether it was actually created by the minister Fang Yung, who lived during the period that it was supposedly translated into Chinese. In any event, because records regarding the authenticity of the Shurangama Sutra exist from as early as AD 754, we know that it was in existence by at least that year, and probably before. Further, whether it was originally penned by Fang Yung or was in fact a translation or at least an adaptation of earlier scriptures, its principles resonate with teachings that are much older, and it became a very influential text in Ch'an Buddhism in China (which is philosophically related to Zen Buddhism in Japan -- both the Chinese word Ch'an and the Japanese word Zen are probably linguistically related to the Sanskrit word dhyana).
You can read a translation of the Shurangama Sutra for yourself at various places on the web, including here (online pdf). The metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon is found on page 60 of that particular translation and file. There we read:
This is like a man pointing a finger at the moon to show it to others who should follow the direction of the finger to look at the moon. If they look at the finger and mistake it for the moon, they lose both the moon and the finger. Why? Because the bright moon is actually pointed at; they lose sight of the finger and fail to distinguish between brightness and darkness. Why? Because they mistake the finger for the bright moon and are not clear about brightness and darkness.
Whatever other deep matters this passage is illuminating, the analogy of the finger pointing to the moon provides another powerful illustration of the concept of the esoteric (the inner or the hidden) and the exoteric (the external or the literal), and the danger of losing sight of the esoteric truth by a mistaken focus on the literal or exoteric. This concept was discussed in a previous post using an example from the 1984 film Karate Kid (for a variety of reasons, some aspects of the martial arts have traditionally been taught using esoteric methodologies, as that post mentions).
The finger in this illustration is only an aid, pointing to a higher truth (represented by the moon). To lose sight of the higher truth because one mistakes the finger or the "teaching aid" for the truth itself would be analogous to losing sight of the martial art that the waxing of cars was intended to teach, and to focus exclusively on waxing cars.
Shockingly, there is abundant evidence that this is exactly what has happened through the literalist interpretation of the stories found in the ancient scriptures which became the Old and New Testaments of the Bible -- the literalists have fallen into the exact mistake warned against in the Shurangama Sutra: "they look at the finger and mistake it for the moon" (and in doing so, they lose both the moon and the finger).
For example, in this previous post entitled "No hell below us . . ." I argue that the scriptures describing hell which are found in the Bible were intended to be read metaphorically, and to refer to that portion of the year in which the sun's daily path (the ecliptic) is below the celestial equator -- and particularly to the winter months at the very "bottom" of the annual cycle, that part of the year on either side of the winter equinox, which is metaphorically speaking the very Pit of hell. In other words, these scriptures are intended to convey an esoteric message, but literalists have interpreted them as describing a literal place called hell where souls are consigned for eternal torment -- a mistake of the same magnitude as mistaking the finger for the moon.
Another example would be mistaking the twelve disciples for literal historical figures, when they are almost certainly representative of the twelve signs of the zodiac and the characteristics associated with each. Angrily insisting that they must be studied first and foremost as literal men living in the Roman Empire is akin to reversing Bruce Lee's dictum in the above film clip to say, "
Don't focus on the moon -- you must only focus on the finger, such as the disciples in the stories, and must never consider the possibility that they are only a guide to point you towards something else!"
Further evidence that the ancient scriptures of the Bible (and of many other sacred traditions found around the globe) are primarily esoteric in nature rather than literal can be found in my new book, The Undying Stars, which also examines some of the history behind the replacement of esoteric truths with a mistaken literalist hermeneutic.
The Undying Stars also discusses the profound truths that these esoteric ancient scriptures may have been intended to convey. In other words, it examines the question which one may be thinking upon reading the above discussion, which might be expressed something like this: "OK, if you are saying that the twelve disciples represent zodiac signs, or that the passages about hell represent the lower half of the annual zodiac wheel, then why would anyone write sacred scriptures about that and make such a big deal about those scriptures for so long? What's the point of making a bunch of stories about the stars?"
One important thing to notice in both the segment from Enter the Dragon and from the Shurangama Sutra is the fact that in both cases, the moon itself is also being used as a metaphor for something else! In other words, the teachings are not just talking about "the moon," meaning the massive rocky body orbiting our planet at an average distance of 238,857 miles. They are using the moon in a metaphorical sense, just as they are using the overall metaphor of a finger pointing to the moon in a metaphorical sense. The moon in both examples is meant to stand for a higher-mind that is beyond the intellect, a thinking that is beyond or above our ordinary form of thinking (in fact, it is meant to convey a truth which is difficult to express in a sentence, which is why it is best grasped through a metaphor and through the esoteric).
In just such a way, the stars and the motions of the heavens to which the ancient scriptural texts (including those which found their way into the Bible) are themselves an analogy for something else. The ancient scriptures are not just "a bunch of stories about the stars" -- they are esoteric stories related to the motions of the heavens and the heavenly bodies, but they are much more than that. They use the motions of the heavens and the heavenly bodies to express profound truths about the human condition and our purpose in this life, as well as to imply a sophisticated cosmology that appears to anticipate modern quantum physics by many thousands of years.
The sophistication of this ancient cosmology suggests that extremely ancient civilizations may somehow have been possessed of extremely advanced science and even what we can only call advanced technology, and may help to explain some of the ancient accomplishments which are extremely difficult to explain using the conventional historical paradigm. This fact may also help to explain why someone would want to subvert the ancient scriptures which teach it, and to get everyone focused on the finger (and only the finger) . . . and to miss all that heavenly glory!