One year when I was in high school we had a new teacher in our biology class. He was a very sweet man, and a wise one, but he had just changed careers and didn’t know much biology. Because of his lack of knowledge he had trouble managing the students. I regret to say I was the worst smart aleck in the class, and I probably caused him more grief than everybody else put together. But he hit on a clever idea. He started assigning topics to us, and we each had to teach our topic. Since I was his biggest headache, he made me the teacher for the longest time. For several weeks I taught the whole unit on botany. He was a very clever man.
I’m tempted to write his name here to honor him but he might still be alive so I won’t. If he’s still alive he’s very old. I’ll just thank him for what he taught me. It was more valuable than biology.
One day a certain girl took her turn as the teacher. Her topic was the tissues of fish. She described bone and cartilage, ectoderm and endoderm, muscle and fat. She was smart and explained things well. She talked for a long time. When she finished, another student raised a hand and asked, “Which tissue is the meat of a fish, the part we mostly eat?”
The girl didn’t know, and she was embarrassed.
You see, despite her intelligence, her lecture had been just words to her. While she was preparing her talk and making her notes, never once had she tried to connect the words to her own experience.
Her reality, the fish on her dinner plate, the thing she stuck a fork in — never once had she tried to match it up with the words she was reading in her biology textbook.
Her intelligence was useless because she kept it separate from her experience. That kind of separation works only with mathematics.
People are often like this when they read spiritual literature.
When we read spiritual literature, or any literature, we take in words and ideas. We should use the words and ideas as tools to grasp reality.
This is what spiritual teachers mean when they say, “My words are only a finger pointing at the moon.” The finger is spiritual teaching and the moon is reality. In the same way, the word muscle in the girl’s textbook was a finger pointing to the parts of the fish that she ate — but she never looked to see where the finger was pointing.
This saying about the finger and moon is true but I don’t like it because the image of the full moon floating in the night sky evokes magic and mystery, and people assume the saying is mystical and magical and that it applies only to profound spiritual matters.
Actually, this saying applies to all words and ideas, even the most ordinary ones. It’s just a plain fact that words and ideas refer to something. They have referents. They point to something. Usually it’s the something that we really care about, not the words. (The something isn’t always a thing, and that’s another problem, but let’s save that one for another day.)
For example, ‘car’. When I say, “My car is parked on 31st Street,” the word ‘car’ is a noise that travels through the air; the idea ‘car’ is a network of images and memories and associations in our heads; and the rusting lump of metal parked outside on the street is something else entirely. The word and idea are pointers to the lump of metal parked outside on the street.
The actual car, the thing parked out on the street, is the referent of the word and idea. It’s the moon.
I can climb in the lump of metal and drive to Nova Scotia, but neither the word nor idea can carry anyone a fraction of an inch.
When we read and think and try to understand, we should look past the words and ideas and try to grasp their referents.
But people, including extremely intelligent people, often fail to do that. Like the girl in my biology class, they tend to think by manipulating ideas without looking past the ideas to their referents. This often causes them to reach absurd or meaningless conclusions. It’s like racing a car engine while the transmission is in neutral. To work properly, the force generated by the engine needs to push against the road. In the same way, the ideas generated by the mind need to remain in contact with reality.
Words, ideas, and the reality they describe: It sounds simple, but people often get the three things mixed up.
When we read spiritual literature, the referents are in our own consciousness. My car is on the street, fish are in oceans and on dinner plates, but pramada and dhyana and the ‘aware state’ and samskaras and the ‘I-thought’ and nonduality are in consciousness. When we read those terms, and others like them, we need to find their referents in our own consciousness.
There are endless conversations on the Internet where people argue about whether this or that is truly nondual, or whether samskaras and vasanas are the same thing, or what is the difference between awareness and consciousness. These discussions are usually about words and ideas. For the most part, discussions like this won’t do much to help anybody get enlightened.
These ideas are useful only for helping you notice aspects of your experience. You can’t derive any truth by manipulating them with your mind. Find the referents in your actual experience. Find the moon.