From Satō Issai 佐藤一斎's 19th-century Genshi shiroku 言志四録 ("Saying what I think: Four records"):

One gazes at the moon to appreciate its purity, not its phase or visibility. One gazes at the flowers to appreciate their vitality, not their color or fragrance.

So, for those keeping score at home, not only are we to look at the moon, not the finger, we must also avoid paying too much attention to whether the moon is full, obscured by clouds, etc.

Or, put a bit less facetiously, Satō is directing us to look beyond outer forms. I do not think it is a coincidence, for example, that this item mentions the moon and flowers specifically — a dyad symbolizing nature as an object of elegant appreciation in the Sinosphere generally ("春江花月夜"), and the subject of Japan's two great "viewing" traditions, hanami and tsukimi.

(Note also that the early history of hanami involved appreciation of plum (ume) blossoms rather than sakura; the specific flower viewed is clearly not the point.)

Update: Should that translation actually be something like "... appreciate its purity, which is not found within its phase or visibility"?

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I'd have gone with your second, but any other thoughts from the finger observing crowd?


Well, Nagarjuna said:


"It's like someone using their finger to point out the moon to an unenlightened person, and the u.p. looks at the finger and not the moon. The first person would say to them, "I pointed at the moon to make you aware of it. Why are you looking at my finger and not the moon?" This [依義, "relying on the meaning"] is similar; the words point at the meaning, but the words are not the meaning. For this reason you should not "rely on the words" [依語]."

I doubt that Satō actually had this in mind of course but the structure seems similar: don't let yourself get distracted by the phase of the moon, or clouds passing by. All that is just there to point you to the moon's essential moon-ness, i.e. "purity".


but I thought the bright moon in the clear sky held no interest unless partly obscured by clouds? (Murata Shukō, 「月も雲間のなきは嫌にて候」)

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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