Pointing The Way


I really love parables; especially Zen parables. The reason I love Zen parables so much is that quite often they are tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time very profound. As with all parables, we have no way of knowing if the stories actually happened, and because the meaning is never in the story itself, but in the subtext, I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether the story actually happened or not. The parable that I’m going to share with you is one of those rarities where I really hope that the story is a complete work of fiction. You will understand why as you read on.

Many centuries ago there was an old Zen master, who would raise his index finger in the air after engaging with disciples. Whether it was to an individual or a group, after imparting some wisdom, the master would raise his index finger in the air. This was a source of great amusement to a young boy in the village, and he would constantly mock the master every time he saw him by raising his finger in the air too. One day, the boy saw the master walking through the market place, and as usual he raised his index finger in the air in a mocking manner. As quick as a flash, the old man caught hold of the boy and cut off the finger. As the boy screamed in agony the master looked at him, raised his finger in the air and walked off.

A harsh lesson indeed and as I said, I really hope it isn’t true. However, the parable contains a beautifully profound message. It’s similar to the old story that says if you want to see the moon and stars, you have to look beyond the finger that’s pointing to them. For me, it is also an indication of the difference between a master and a teacher. A teacher will teach us what’s in the text book, everything that’s gone before; all the old stale stuff. A teacher will contribute to our conditioning, along with priests, parents, peers, media etc. Indeed, everything that shapes our thoughts about who we are as we are growing up. A master, on the other hand, treats everyone who comes to them as a unique individual and “points the way.”

A master doesn’t teach, in fact, I’ve heard it said that a master is the antidote to the teacher. A master points the way by giving us the key to ourselves. The greatest knowledge is Self-knowledge, and that isn’t something that can be taught. It is experiential and very unique to the one having the experience. The boy in the parable may have been young, but the master’s actions were saying, “I’ve cut your finger off, what are you going to do now? Look beyond the finger.”

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