The hand pointing at the moon is not the moon

In the tradition of Christ’s Socratic dialogue, I present to you a story while asking, “What think ye?” This gem of a story comes from Zen in 10 Simple Lessons by Anthony Man-Tu Lee and David Weiss:

Dan Xia taking shelter in a Buddhist temple on a cold evening found himself with little fuel for his meager fire and took down one of the Buddha images from the altar and added it to the embers. The temple custodian was appalled by his sacrilege and chastized Dan Xia for his irreverence. Dan Xia calmly took up a stick and began scratching about the embers, and replied: “I am looking for holy relics among the ashes.”

The puzzled and still furious custodian asked: “How can you get holy relics from a wooden Buddha?”

“If there are no relics to be found,” replied Dan Xia, “how can this be considered a Buddha, and if not a Buddha, how am I committing any sacrilegious act. Would you mind if I added the two remaining Buddhas to my fire?”

When I found this story I literally laughed out loud. When my wife heard me, she asked me what was so funny so I read this story to her and it upset her greatly. She took the side of the temple custodian, whereas I like way of Dan Xia’s thinking. So, my dear readers, what think ye?



Filed under life stories, religion

6 responses to “The hand pointing at the moon is not the moon

  1. I’m surprised no one said anything yet.

    I’m on your wife’s side on this one. Sacredness is very subjective, and it means different things to different people.

    For example, when Big Love thought it would be a good idea to put a version of the Mormon temple ceremony on their TV show, members of the church expressed outrage. The HBO guys came out with an apology, “We’re sorry we hurt your feelings, but we’re not going to do anything to rectify the situation.” The Temple ceremony was not a sacred thing to the HBO guys because it was not a part of their religious or spiritual lives.

    Similarly, Muslims get very seriously offended when Dutch newspapers publish cartoons of Muhammad, because he is a sacred religious figure to them.

    So just because Dan Xia didn’t agree with the custodian on the sacredness of the Buddhas doesn’t mean they weren’t sacred. All it means is that he didn’t think they were. His actions, while zen, I suppose, show a blatant disregard for The Other. And that is kind of mean.

  2. I laughed, tool. The ‘crazy sage who is actually rather clever’ is one of my favorite characters/stereotypes.

    Dan Xia’s logic seems more like rationalization– rather than well thought out practice and position. But I still laughed. I find myself bothered by HBO’s move, and understanding of those frustrated Muslims, I remind my self that: “…Calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth, boldy, nobly, and independent…”
    And honestly? That is what I hope for– that every last person on earth has a chance to come unto the Savior, and know our Father in Heaven for who he is. And other peoples respect for things sacred to me comes second to that, I suppose. Although, I’m not above calling someone out on it when they do something disrespectful in my presence.

  3. Ted

    @Beth, I got a lot of varied, mixed reactions to it.

    One friend of mine mentioned that it’s similar to the David and the shewbread story. He didn’t see a problem with what Dan Xia did.

    Another friend (who is not religious) said that he saw it as very disrespectful. You just don’t do that to things people consider sacred even if you don’t. Heck, you just don’t do that to property that isn’t yours, period. Had it been the temple custodian’s HDTV, he said, he’d still be angry.

    @Mykle, I, too, love the crazy sage who’s actually rather clever archetype. Gotta love it.

    Thanks for your responses, everyone!

  4. Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your site is very helpful.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  5. Al

    I chuckled. “If you see the Buddha on your path, kill him”, the saying goes; Buddhism especially is about eschewing attachments to trivial and transient things. While a prominent site (like the Buddha statues demolished by the Taliban) are historical and should be preserved for that reason, I don’t believe that this was a case of defamation. Rather, the custodian could have learned a valuable lesson.

  6. Jill

    This actually reminds me of a story I heard of a bunch of monks carrying a huge stone Buddha statue up a mountain to save it from people who were pillaging temples and the like. I can’t remember exactly what the story was, sadly, but the monks started to complain that they were going to so much effort just to carry a stone statue up the mountain when there were many more precious things they could be saving. When they reached the top of the mountain, the teacher or whoever (I’m so technical) picked away at the stone to reveal a statue made of pure gold. The moral is of course that you don’t the worth of something by the outside, but for a moment I thought the statues in the story would burn away to reveal golden Buddhas.

    At any rate, I don’t think Dan Xia even disrespects what is sacred. I think he is teaching the custodian that to freeze to death in order to preserve the materialistic representation of sacredness is folly. Buddha wasn’t in the statue itself. That was my reading of the story. To get offended was to miss the whole point, I think.

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