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What Can You Learn About Yourself From the Moon?

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

I thought it was cool recently when I learned that in many Buddhist circles, particularly in the Zen tradition, it is said that the moon can be compared to our true nature--bright, still, calm, composed, and vital. This might be like the mind/body state that we sometimes find ourselves in: at ease, equanimous, not needing the moment to be different, not judging, open minded, dwelling in the moment, and relishing in the beauty and fragility of this life.

Painting of Ohara Koson's Monkey Reaching For The Moon
Ohara Koson Monkey Reaching For The Moon

They also say that we tend to think of ourselves not as the moon, but as the reflection of the moon on a water’s surface. They liken this reflection to our conditioning (the stories we tell ourselves about who we really are, and the many thoughts/concepts we take as facts/truth). It all seems real, but it’s just a reflection. In other words, how we see ourselves (and others) feels solid and like truth. Yet, as most people realize as they grow older, our thoughts aren’t facts (they are merely the result of our conditioning), we are not who we once were, people don’t meet our expectations, most things are out of our control, and beliefs we’ve become so attached to can be disappear like a magician’s trick. Life happens, disrupting our stories and expectations (yet we still cling to them).

When life’s inevitable lessons show us that our identities aren’t to be taken so seriously, it is like taking a stick and making ripples or waves in the water, disturbing the reflection of the moon or leaving no trace of the moon whatsoever. This can either be liberating (these stories, beliefs and labels don’t define me!!) or uncomfortable (we look to cling to our version of things and seek confirmation that our belief is the right one, because this is what we are familiar with).

A quick example of my own stories and beliefs that I still work with: Getting cut from the Varsity soccer team as a freshman because of my small physical size at the time, and despite being more than good enough to make the team, was devastating. Years later, even after becoming an All-State soccer player, and going to University on a soccer scholarship, this belief of ‘not good enough’ still rears it’s ugly head at times. Is this belief true? No, it’s a belief that I’ve internalized based on my own conditioning. It’s a reflection on the water.

A night time moon reflecting on a dark water's surface.
The moon and it's reflection.

So, seemingly real, we take the reflection (the identity we’ve created) very seriously. We take things personally, when in fact, they usually are not personal. When the water gets disturbed or set in motion (life happening), it feels like our self is now somehow threatened (the reflection has been disturbed by the ripples and waves in the water). So, we get defensive, angry, avoidant, or whatever our habit is to protect this sense of self we’ve created.

The reality is these are just normal ripples and waves (life happening), and our Buddha-nature (the moon) is still there and available to be accessed in the midst of any type of ripple, wave, or weather. We just have to learn how to access it.

So, how do we make contact with and access this inner stillness, and how to notice and let go of some of the mind’s tricky habits? The answer of course is meditation! Here is a short guided meditation on how to practice with our stories and make contact with that inner stillness:

Thanks for reading the article, and by the way, I'm not sure if I've completely nailed it in terms of this Buddhist teaching, but it is my take on it, accurate or not. Here are some poems and ideas with similar and different angles:

Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, January 19, 1686 – January 18, 1768)

The monkey is reaching For the moon in the water. Until death overtakes him He’ll never give up. If he’d let go the branch and Disappear in the deep pool, The whole world would shine With dazzling pureness.

A painting of Hakuin Ekaku's Monkey Reaching For The Moon
Hakuin Ekaku Monkey Reaching For The Moon

Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253):

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.

The following is by the blog author at: :

'My first impression is that the moon symbolizes all the elusive and illusive things I think I need in this ephemeral world.  If, however, the monkey did manage to grab hold of the moon, he would be disappointed, since it would instantly disappear in the water disturbed by his grasping hand. So, too, the attractiveness of things seems to evaporate once we have them.  We wait and wait for Christmas morning (or its adult equivalent),  but there is usually a terrific let-down in the afternoon.  We are on to the next better thing: a better job, a better place to live, a better wife or husband.  The monkey will never be satisfied as long as it continues to reach for illusory substitutes for the real thing'.

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