Capricorn (2): A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Buddhist Story 

The Blind People and the Elephant

The Buddha and his disciples were staying near the town of Savatthi. One day some of the disciples went into the town dressed in their saffron robes in order to beg alms from the citizens, when they became aware that the place was full of people from numerous conflicting religious traditions, who seemed to be engaged in a constant debate about religious matters. Some were saying, ‘The world is eternal; this is the truth and everything else is delusion.’ Others were arguing exactly the opposite point of view. Some were saying, ‘Body and soul are really just one thing,’ while members of an equally vociferous group were declaring that body and soul were distinct entities. ‘The soul lives on after the death of the body,’ said the representatives of one group. ‘There is no life after death,’ said the representatives of another. The town seemed to be in an interminable state of disputation, men and women abusing each other with words that pierced like swords.
            Amazed by the ferocity and intensity of the arguments, the disciples returned to the Buddha and told him of their experiences. After listening to their story, the Buddha said, ‘These people are blind. They don’t know what is real or what is not real. They can’t distinguish truth from falsehood, and it is purely because of this state of ignorance that they spend their time in argument. What’s more, they’ve been at it for a very long time. Then he proceeded to tell his disciples this story.
Many years ago there was a king in this very town of Savatthi who was himself so sickened by the religious disputes that he decided to teach the people a lesson. He ordered a servant to gather together all the town’s blind people and have them touch an elephant, but he was to make sure that each one touched a different part of the elephant’s body.

The Blind Men and the Elephant
The servant assembled the blind people in the town square. ‘Here is an elephant,’ he said to them, ‘and I want each of you to touch it.’ To one he presented the head of the elephant, to another the ear, to another the tusk; to others the trunk, the leg, side, tail, tuft of the tail, saying to each one that what he could feel was the elephant. Then he went to the king and said, ‘Your majesty, the elephant hasbeen presented to the blind people.’
            ‘Now bring the blind people to me,’ ordered the king.
            When the blind people were brought before the king, he said to them in turn, ‘Have you studied the elephant?’
            ‘Yes, I have, your majesty,’ each one replied.
            ‘Then tell me your conclusions about it.’
            The one who had touched the elephant’s head answered, ‘Your majesty, the elephant is just like a pot.’
            The one who had felt the ear said, ‘The elephant is just like a basket.’
            ‘It’s like a sword,’ said the one who had touched the tusk.
            The elephant’s side was said to be like a wall;
             its leg like a pillar;
             its trunk like a pipe;
             its tail like a rope;
            the tuft of its tail like a brush.
            After each one had given his opinion, the others would disagree, shouting, ‘It’s not like that!’   
            ‘Yes, it is!’
            ‘No, it isn’t!
            At the end, the arguments became so bad that the blind people even began to hit each other!
            The king was delighted with the scene.
After he had told this story, the Buddha said, ‘The people in the town of Savatthi today are just like the blind men in the story: some of them may have part of the truth, but each of them is arguing as if he has the whole of it. Then the Buddha uttered these memorable words:
            O how they fight and wrangle, some who claim
            Of monk and priest the honoured name!
            For quarrelling, each to his own view they cling.
            Such folk see only one side of a thing!
(Written in January 2008)
About ten days ago I received two consecutive but very contrasting emails. The first was from Michelle Read, thanking the church’s managing committee for donating 500 euros to the Dublin Buddhist Centre. Michelle is a member of our church, but she has attended yoga and meditation classes at the centre, and she had asked the committee to consider a donation to the centre’s refurbishment fund. Michelle’s email contained the response of Simon, the centre’s representative:
What a lovely surprise!... ... How generous of you to suggest to your management committee that they support our work; and how generous of your management committee to agree to give us €500. We really are delighted, more especially as we're such a small community, not practising within the mainstream religious traditions of Ireland, so to know that what we do is appreciated by someone like yourselves is very gratifying.
The second email contained very different news. It was an extract from an article printed in a Lancashire newspaper about the decision of three churches to boycott an event which is to take place in a Unitarian church.
A war of words has broken out after three leading Christian churches snubbed an event to bring women together in prayer. The Church of England, Baptist, and Methodist churches in Padiham rejected the invitation of the town’s Unitarians for the Women’s Day of Prayer service. Clergy said that they had taken the decision because Unitarians did not believe in the Holy Trinity, that is the father, the son, and the holy spirit.
The Women’s Day of Prayer is a world-wide event, held on the first Friday in March each year, and, in the Lancashire town of Padiham, the churches have taken it in turns to host it. This was all well and good when the conventional churches were hosts, but not this year. ‘The idea of the day is Trinitarian,’ says Rev. Mark Jones of St. Leonard’s Church, ‘and we do not think that it is right for them to hold the service if they do not believe in Trinitarianism.’ He went on to explain that he wouldn’t be attending because ‘Unitarians deny virtually every one of the crucial Christian doctrines.’ Representatives from the Baptist and Methodist churches agreed with him. 
            The responses on the newspaper’s website are entertaining. One, from ‘Dave’, says, ‘A few hundred years ago, the other Churches would have burned the Unitarians alive for what they believe. I guess just snubbing them is a form of progress.’ Another, from ‘padihamresident’, says, ‘Typical that it is men who are arguing over a day of prayer that is meant to be for women.’ Although one or two letters support the snub, calling it ‘a stand for real Christianity’, the vast majority express incredulity and dismay at the narrow mindedness of the decision.
Ironically, the theme of this year’s service is ‘God’s Wisdom Provides New Understanding.’
But we here in Ireland can’t be too smug about our tolerance levels. Last Tuesday afternoon, Doirrean telephoned me to tell me to tune in immediately to RTE Radio 1, where a phone-in was in progress, a debate on whether St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Church of Ireland – should be selling rosary beads in its shop. ‘It’s a betrayal of the principles of the Reformation,’ said the Northern Ireland Protestant man, who seemed to have raised the issue. He was a pleasant enough chap, but he told us that he wouldn’t attend his daughter’s wedding, or the funeral of a relative, if either event were to take place in a Catholic church. He agreed with Ian Paisley that the pope was the antichrist, that Catholicism wasn’t a Christian religion, and that the sole guide to faith and morals was the Bible. ‘Unless we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we cannot be saved,’ was his message.
The major issue raised, both by the emails and the radio broadcast, is that of authority in religious matters, the very question which Mark deals with in the Capricorn section of his Gospel, where he challenges us to reconsider our attitude to religious authority in whatever guise it is presented to us.
The planet associated by the ancients with Capricorn was Saturn, the planet of boundaries, rules and regulations, duty, and structure. Saturn represents the Father, not as a tender, loving parent, but as a stern, authoritarian potentate who brooks no dissent, who insists on conformity, and who upholds tradition. The paterfamilias in the Roman world had absolute power of life and death over his children, his wife, and his slaves, for the whole of their lives. At the time of the Roman Republic, the paterfamilias had the right to order an unwanted child to be put to death by exposure, and he even had the power to sell his children into slavery. His word was law, and punishment for disobeying it could be swift and merciless.


Capricorn was also associated with the goddess Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Remember Swan Vestas matches? These are no doubt named after this goddess, but she was not the goddess of light in the sense of ‘enlightenment’ or ‘truth’. Her ‘sacred flame’, kept alight by the Vestal Virgins, was the light of the fireside, the light of tradition. Whenever the Romans established a new colony, fire was brought to it from the central fire in Rome, emphasising continuity, and the extension of authority from the centre outwards. So important was this central fire that the Vestal Virgins were under threat of death should they let it go out. These women had many privileges, but punishment for breaking their thirty-year vow of chastity was burial alive.
Tradition was a dominant theme within the Roman Empire, and tradition has been a dominant theme within religion throughout the ages. In this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is shown debating with the upholders of the various traditions within Judaism – Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, the Elders, the Lawyers, all those who, in one way or another, mediated the religion of Moses to the people. It should come as no surprise to us to learn that these groups – and others - were constantly in dispute with one another; plus ca change! For example, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible – what the Jews call Torah, the Pentateuch, the Law – were authoritative; the Pharisees, on the other hand, while accepting the authority of these books, believed that certain oral and written traditions should also be granted authority. The two positions are not very different from the Protestant and Catholic attitudes to authority today; Scripture alone (like the Protestants) for the Sadducees; Scripture and Tradition (like the Catholics) for the Pharisees.
Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees concerns life after death. Because there is no unequivocal mention of an afterlife in the first five books of the Bible, the Sadducees did not accept it as part of their belief system. The question they bring to Jesus is this: ‘Suppose a woman marries seven brothers successively, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?’ It seems a silly question to us, but in its context it was not so silly. If a Jewish man died childless, it was incumbent upon his brother to marry his ex sister-in-law and raise up children in the dead man’s name. It was called ‘levirate marriage’, and so, theoretically, it was possible for a woman to marry seven brothers, if each of them had died in turn without producing offspring.
Jesus tells his hearers that such a woman would be the wife of none of the brothers, because in the afterlife there is no marriage, but then he goes on to say that the Sadducees have got it wrong about life after death. ‘When God speaks to Moses from the burning bush,’ says Jesus, ‘he announces himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. How can he be the God of these men if they no longer exist?’ It’s a strange argument, to say the least, and not a terribly convincing one, but you can see what Jesus is doing here: he’s taking an episode from the books that the Sadducees considered authoritative and using it to refute their point of view. He does something similar a little later. By quoting a passage from the Psalms, he questions the universally held Jewish belief that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that Jesus’ argument is pretty specious here as well. But – and this is the point – it was meant to be! What the Gospel writer is saying – and what we all know to our cost - is that given enough time and enough ingenuity you can make the Bible – or the Koran, or the Bhagavad Gita – say anything you like! Taken together, these two incidents make a very subtle case against what we might call Bibliolatry – worship of a book, the acceptance of any book as the definitive revelation from God.
Why would God in his infinite wisdom provide a written text as the basis of his self-revelation when every reader knows that all writing is shot through with ambiguity, and the more poetic a piece the more ambiguity it contains? Indeed, poetry relies on ambiguity. The only texts which strive to be free from all possible double meanings are unreadable insurance policies; the ‘heretofores’ and ‘hereinafters’ are there in profusion because insurance brokers know that ambiguity can be costly. But the Bible is poetry, and so it is a veritable cornucopia of double-meaning, contradiction, and implausibility, and I could give you, right now, off the top of my head, a dozen examples of each of these. In fact, Mark’s Gospel itself contains an absolutely glaring error. At the end of chapter 2, Jesus says to his opponents, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when Abiathar was high priest, how he took the temple bread and gave it to his hungry men to eat?’ But Jesus gets it wrong! Abiathar was not the high priest at that time. The high priest was Ahimelech – check it out for yourself in chapter 21 of the First Book of Samuel.
Did Jesus make mistake? Did Mark make a mistake? Unthinkable, say the literalists. Abiathar must have been another name for Ahimelech, or Abiathar must have been the high priest as well, or some such strained reasoning. Maybe it was a copyist’s error, say some. Perhaps, but if we admit that there are copyists’ errors in the text, how can we go on to say that it is infallible? I think the real explanation is quite startling, quite liberating, and quite amusing: this, and similar ‘errors’ in the Bible are deliberately put there, and deliberately left there, in the hope – forlorn as it appears – that readers will not be tempted to treat the whole thing as an oracle.
But, sadly, we have, and we do. Religion has been in the hands of pedants and literalists since the beginning of time, and the world pays for such pedantry with interminable argument and disastrous division.

A Finger pointing at the Moon

No book – no matter how exalted, no matter how beautiful, no matter how venerable – can be the sole basis for our religious and moral life. Nor can any institution, any guru, any priest, any minister, any tradition. Matthew’s Gospel – in the parallel section to the passage of Mark that we are considering - puts it very succinctly: ‘Call no man on earth your father,’ it says, which means, give no one the kind of power over you which the paterfamilias exercised in the Roman Empire. Do not allow traditions, authorities, books, religious institutions, university professors and the like to usurp your inalienable right, and your absolute duty, to come to your own conclusions. Books, companions, traditions, teachers, are undeniably useful but they should never become idols to worship, they should never be permitted to do your thinking for you, and they should never be allowed to stand between you and the experience of the divine. Religious figures and institutions are, in the words of the Buddha, simply ‘fingers pointing at the moon’, and they should not be confused with the moon itself. The Buddhists say, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ meaning, don’t even allow the Buddha to get in your way. You have your own journey to make. The Buddha can be your companion; the Bible can be your guide; Jesus can be your mentor; the church can be your refuge, but none of these can do your thinking, your praying, your acting, your doubting, your praising, or your suffering, for you. 

‘We cannot worship with the Unitarians because they don’t believe in the Trinity,’ says the Anglican rector of Padiham, allowing an inherited, sixteen centuries’ old dogma to stand in the way of human decency, community spirit, female solidarity, and common sense. ‘Unitarians deny virtually every one of the crucial Christian doctrines,’ says the Rev. Jones. No we don’t. We deny nothing. We simply affirm, with St. Paul, that now we ‘see through a glass darkly’, and, since our knowledge of the things of God is partial and relative – like the blind men’s knowledge of the elephant - we must draw our conclusions tentatively. We refuse to be shackled by ancient dogmas, and we refuse to exclude others from fellowship on the basis of tenuous metaphysics. We respect the past and its many wonderful literary and spiritual masterpieces, but we refuse to allow tradition to tyrannize us. If we stand in any tradition, it is that of Socrates who told us that ‘the unexamined life is worthless’, or of Brian in The Life of Brian, who constantly tried to dismiss the sycophantic crowds with the immortal words, ‘Think for yourselves!’





  1. Thank Bill this is me thinking about a lot of things...mainly how important true humility is. Why? Well because it keeps one open to knew experiences way beyond the confines of what we think we know...For me humility and the openness it breeds is true faith...thank you


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