Shinran Shōnin goes even further in explaining the importance of religious symbols. He
teaches us that the Buddha’s enlightenment is formless; we cannot see it, touch it, or grasp it. But,
because it is true, it makes itself known to us by taking form.
Shinran says that formless truth (Dharma-body) takes the form of the light of wisdom and the Name of Amida Buddha—Namu Amida Butsu. The
images and stories of Amida Buddha are all religious symbols, the form taken by wisdom and
compassion in order to guide us to enlightenment.
This is pretty confusing stuff. So Shinran Shōnin and Nâgârjuna (ca. 150–250 C.E.) used
the idea of a finger pointing to the moon to explain it.
Picture this: We are walking along a path
at night, staring at our footsteps as we try not to stumble. Suddenly, someone comes up to us,
taps us on the shoulder, and points up into the sky. We follow the direction of his finger and, for
the first time, we see the moon, gleaming high up in the dark sky.
Here, the finger is a symbol. It represents the teachings or imagery which point us to the
moon. The moon is like enlightenment itself. Normally, we don’t see it and, when we do, we
don’t know what it is. It seems so far away. We’re disconnected to it.
“What we need is a finger that can point us to the moon—the dharma, a teacher or a symbol,
which can connect us to it. Teachings of Amida Buddha, also painting and statues of Amida are
the finger. Enlightenment, to which a Buddha awakens, constitutes the moon.”
Religious symbols, such as teachings, images, songs and stories, all help to direct our
attention away from worldly matters and toward ultimate truth. Without the finger, we could not
see the moon. But, we should not mistake the finger for the moon. Religious symbols all help to
change the direction of our lives or the way we see things.
A statue of Amida Buddha may focus
our reverence and help to generate a sense of joyful faith in our hearts. But it is a statue
nonetheless; it is not the Buddha.
At the same time, however, Shinran Shōnin’s insight was deeper.
A finger is just a finger. It
simply points to the moon. However, without the light of the moon, we could not see the finger.
It could not guide us to see the moon. In other words, a symbol takes on religious power only
when it acts together with the working of enlightenment.
A statue, story or word can only do its
“symbolizing work” when enlightenment makes itself known to us through it.
Through the images of the Buddha, the story of Amida Buddha and even the Name of the
Buddha, timeless and formless truth takes the form of a symbol, pointing us to that truth and
revealing the deepest levels of our lives.