Fingers and Moon

I was dumbfounded: confounded and struck dumb at the same time. It was a congenial place to be, I discovered, being content to stay there a while, sheltered in the dignity and grace of not knowing, that is, shedding false knowledge. . . .

First published on July 15th 2015 and reissued to complement Natalie d’Arbeloff’s letter

But now I find myself wanting to speak, for which I must pay the inevitable price of emerging from silence. For there is a contrary current in me, perhaps a less noble one, which demands expression at any cost, even when I have nothing to say, and no planned utterance ready. This inner movement, like an activist spokesman on behalf of quietism, has an even more exigent demand, that I consider speaking here daily, and make it into a proper diary. That way, it suggests, I could save time: just set aside an hour, and write. Indeed one faithful reader proposed I set myself a deadline to publish at least once a week. That was two weeks ago. We shall see. At any rate we have started. This blog has always seemed like a journey with no destination. A day will come where “the rest is silence” as in Hamlet’s final speech. “Not yet, O Lord!”, pleads St. Augustine. The sun still shines: there is hay to be made. Silence will end us all, for that which is born must die. There are those who would argue otherwise, but there we enter the territory of Ernest Becker, whose Denial of Death got him a Pulitzer Prize and remains in print, while its author remains dead. (For reasons unknown to me, my review of his book published 21st October 2010 remains the most-read post on this blog.)

So I shall just start, my purpose being to address a reader who will understand. With any luck that person will be myself. With even more luck someone else will encounter my words and find meaning or sustenance in them. The addictive ingredient of blogging is to enter into relationship with readers. The visible part of this is to receive responses, whether in public comments or private emails. These responses are invariably encouraging, regardless of content. Conversations spring up, the project is validated and invigorated. My silence has not been inert but strenuous, like wrestling with an angel:

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives and his two womenservants and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had.
And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when the man saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him.
And the man said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” And he said, “I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.”

Well, I have been blessed, again and again. If I know anything at all, I know that. Everything else may be false knowledge. The hollow of my thigh has seen better days, but my doctor says it’s “age-related”. That too is in doubt. But the day breaketh and I can let the angel go, and agree with him and myself to break silence and speak.

I can trace my dumbfounded state to a book, Fingers Pointing towards the Moon: Reflections of a Pilgrim on the Way, referred to in a couple of recent posts. In some mystical sense it has been the spiritual companion of my wayfaring for fifty years, though it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve held it in my hands once more. I first came across it in November 1963, by accident, so to speak, as I entered the bookshop on a different quest.

There are turning-points in life. Chance encounters, you become lovers, then nothing remains but fond memory; or you marry, found a dynasty, and live happily ever after. I’d gone into the shop to see Christina. We’d met in July of that year* & subsequently from time to time. She told me she’d got a job in the department which specialized in philosophy & oriental religion.

Anyhow, she said she could not speak to me now, as her supervisor was looking for any excuse to fire her. I should go and browse, and she’d let me know when the coast was clear. So I browsed and saw the book and knew it was for me, a kind of love at first sight, before her very eyes; which brimmed, as I did not realize at the time, with unrequited love for me. I went on to marry someone else, and so in due course did she.

I blocked her from my mind—it was necessary—to the point that I no longer associated the book’s acquisition with that moment in our relationship, but revered it on its own terms, and allowed its contents to sink into my unconscious mind. I see now that I was in no position to understand it. And because I was a wanderer of no fixed abode, it remained among the books I regularly packed in boxes and unpacked at the other end, until one fateful day in May 1972, when my wife and I, infected by one another’s craziness and hype about a certain alleged guru, left the bohemian commune where we’d been wintering and gave away our worldly goods, all except what we could carry in our battered van. They have a name for this kind of thing: folie à deux, though there were four of us, we had two small children to accompany our adventures. That’s what made it such a folie.

The author of Fingers Pointing towards the Moon is not to be blamed. Now that I have it again, and have read it all through, with an increasing grasp of its essence, I try to unearth any careless or inflammatory doctrine that could have inspired the eccentric direction we took. In vain. It’s the same book, in exactly the same first edition, but I hardly recognize it. Only this sentence leapt out as familiar, for some reason:

When a beggar renders you the service of accepting a shilling he thanks you for giving him the opportunity of rendering you that service.

The most striking idea I discover in the book now, reading it afresh, is his repeated assertion that Time is an illusion, generated by the human animal who can think. We are trapped in the Unreal, which he sometimes calls the “plane of seeming”. This is our everyday life, in which we discern chains of cause and effect, which he refutes:

There can be no such thing as a Cause, for the idea of causation presupposes the objective existence of Time. Cause-and-effect therefore are an illusion appertaining to the plane of seeming.

He says that freedom of action is also illusion. If time is illusion, how can the future be uncertain? How can it depend on actions performed in the present? Yet there is freedom of reaction. He quotes Hui Neng:

From the beginning, nothing exists.

The whole created world is illusion, according to this view: all except Consciousness, much of which is also illusion, especially our sense of a separate “I”. So what are we? Cogs in a machine we call Universe? He makes it clear throughout that our joy and freedom comes from ceasing to invest hope and expectation in the “I”. Does this sound like what Aldous Huxley calls “the perennial philosophy”? As viewed by mathematics, science & reason, the machine operates pretty much consistently, leading us to call it Reality. But it’s just a fairground attraction, which may sometimes seem like a nightmare. The author doesn’t mention it, but I’m reminded of the Hindu concept of Lila§, or Divine Game.

It’s in our nature to ask “why?”, to assume there is a cause for every effect. Accordingly, I had assumed my urge to buy the book again was pure nostalgia, a time-travelling device to waft me back to unfinished business of fifty years ago, when I made choices I’ve later regretted as “mistakes”, if not worse. But those posthumous Fingers, pointing towards their postulated Moon, have helped achieve far more than nostalgic indulgence. They have pointed me to a different way of seeing, in which no mistake was made, no regret or sense of guilt due. Scary as it seems at first, I find it a comfort ultimately to view my past life not as a series of misadventures best forgotten, but part of a fixed destiny, in which I was almost as helpless as the little children my first wife and I dragged along to witness the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Could I have done better, or is there indeed a destiny that shapes our ends, in spite of all the rough-hewing we inflicted on our own selves? I know not, only that I listened at last like Jacob to the wrestling angel and let him go before the break of day, and accepted his blessing. Herewith, I release the memories of those past loves from my grasp. In a timeless universe nothing goes away, but in this “plane of seeming” where you and I connect, they died, while I’m still here, in health and thankfulness.
————-
* See this post. I’ve written a long memoir about Christina, and her widowed husband wrote another. Neither were intended for publication. She was born in 1944 and died in 1982.
Some of the book is available online, here
Hui Neng was the 6th Zen Patriarch.
§ Lila: see e.g. this article

15 thoughts on “Fingers and Moon”

  1. I did so enjoy reading this post, largely I think because you have something to say. …..And I do not seem to do so. Since your last post, I have looked forward to reading your next, this, post – and I have not been disappointed. I do not understand where I am, or even if I am, but somehow I gain something from your writing. For that something I am grateful.

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  2. Thank you, Ellie & Tom! It is a blessing to have such readers who manifestly get it—what's said and what cannot be said. The “I” almost always has something to say & one of the reasons I find it so hard to publish anything is getting the “I” to quieten and listen to the still small voice: “And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”

    . . . And I do not seem to do so.” Exactly. So then we are in silence, with the dignity and and grace it confers.

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  3. Way back when, when I was working on Nuclearheadache, I tried to stick to a schedule of something like 12 or 13 posts a month — I forget which. In later blogs I foreswore any such rigid schedule. At first I was concerned that, by not keeping to a schedule, I would fall behind and not fulfill my own personal obligation to keep up with the blog. But I found that I wrote when I felt compelled to write, and I posted in more or less the same consistent fashion that I had before, and I kept the blog afloat for more or less the same amount of time.

    So the point being, for me at least, keeping to a schedule wasn't nearly as important as getting hooked and staying hooked, thinking in terms of the blog, always looking for that next post. It's when you start to lose touch with it, that it begins to slip away.

    But different things work for different people of course.

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  4. “…..With even more luck someone else will encounter my words and find meaning or sustenance in them. The addictive ingredient of blogging is to enter into relationship with readers. The visible part of this is to receive responses….”

    Hear hear! I can echo every word of this. Another ingredient of blogging is that the effort of saying something to others forces one to discover and clarify one's own thoughts about any particular subject. I often don't know what I think until I've written it down and, on another level, until I've found a graphic way of expressing it.

    Your posts are always thought-provoking, Vincent, and sometimes, in my argumentative mind, argument-provoking…in a good way! In this case because I disagree with “Fingers Pointing Towards the Moon” but the reasons I disagree are too long to put in a comment box so I'll be emailing you. Meanwhile, this is a fine post, I'm glad you're back on the blogging stage and look forward to more.

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  5. Thank you Natalie. I very much look forward to your disagreement with the book, and the possibility of agreeing with you about it.

    For it's an expression of its author, like any other book; & if it's helped me to a different way of seeing, it's done its job well.

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  6. “Could I have done better”

    I have a friend who seems to have a brilliant mind judging from his ability to remember and piece together things he reads. But he has difficulty managing mundane aspects of getting along in the world. The police stopped him a few days ago for riding his old bike while carrying his old gas blower. He was stopped for looking suspicious. Even with his superior intelligence, he had a hard time making them understand that he had a right to be where he was and do what he was doing.

    It is easy to say that he could have done better. That he could tried to get along with people or that he could have attempted to make himself more acceptable. Did he or didn't he have a choice? Do any of have a choice but to travel the road we are put upon.

    There is that tale about Ulysses as his Soul was to be reincarnated. He requested a simple private life of minding his own business. He had traveled the road of seeking honor once. There was a different road that beckoned now.

    Blake wants us to learn to distinguish between the garment one wears and the Eternal Soul which wears the garment.
    Milton, Plate 32
    “Distinguish therefore States from Individuals in those States.
    States Change: but Individual Identities never change nor cease:
    You cannot go to Eternal Death in that which can never Die
    ….
    Judge then of thy Own Self: thy Eternal Lineaments explore
    What is Eternal & what Changeable? & what Annihilable!”

    Perhaps we can feel easier about what we put our children through when we realize it was only the garments we were providing for them.

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  7. “difficulty managing mundane aspects of getting along in the world”—I can well relate to this. And when it’s a lifelong thing, it can lead to us never acquiring the missing skills, because we get ingrained in our different habits and way of life.

    On the other hand, there’s a skill which doesn’t take so much learning, but can turn out more valuable than all the others: letting go, non-attachment. The garment gets tattered but the eternal lineaments become more apparent.

    I’m beginning to see how Blake was connected to sources of wisdom beyond himself.

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  8. And yes – far be it from me to provoke awkward discussion at this late stage … heh: but it seems to me that there is difference between ” n'shalla” (as god wills) and the concept of “whatever will be, will be”?

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  9. And yes, Vincent. Did mention that am eagerly looking forward to an impending connection to the Australian National Broadband (fixed wireless) Network.

    Hopefully, longish verbal discussions via skype – will not cost me your friendship … heh.

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  10. Well I agree there is a difference. So how does the difference seem to you?

    I don't think I shall ever say “n'shalla”, not even on this street, especially not on this street, where the end of Ramadan still hasn't been announced–a month spent not as god wills, methinks, but that would provoke awkward discussion amongst my neighbours, leading to a challenge to Jesus' second commandment, to love thy neighbour as thyself.

    But we can say what we like in this street, methinks.

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