Pointing at the Moon vs. Skillful Means in Debate Pedagogy (tags: debate, pedagogy, Zen)

There are two distinct and seemingly contradictory edicts in the pedagogy of Zen Buddhism.

The first is the idea of “pointing at the moon.” This comes from a koan that is quite well known in Buddhist literature. The koan goes like this:

The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas i do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.” The patriach responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps i will be able to explain the meaning.” Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?” “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

One interpretation of this is that direction from another is never enough for comprehension. It can be the first step in apprehension, or discovery. But after that one must take on the subject with directness, experience, and absoption.

Another approach: Talking about or listening to a discourse on a subject does not make one understand the subject. This is a much, much ignored idea in contemporary teaching, but not in contemporary pedagogy. Critical pedagogy tackles this issue head on, in my opinion, with the idea of praxis, or practice and theory blended or merged in such a way that they inform each other directly.

The finger pointing at the moon is an egotistical finger. It is so uncertain and unsure of itself that it often imagines that without its presence, nobody would even see the moon, much less recognize the incredible importance and value of the moon. The finger is a lot closer, and a lot more immediate than the moon, so the finger gets a lot of attention from the students. The students easily begin to slip into the easy believe that not only does the finger understand the moon implicitly, but the finger lives there, has lived there for many years, and often goes there. Some even say the finger is composed of moon-matter, and therefore attending to the finger is attending to the moon – they are of the same stuff.

This koan is a pedagogical warning: Do not equate the message with the messenger. You will fall into terrible associations and false practices. Nobody but you can assess and know the moon. There’s nothing between you and the moon. You do not need a finger to help you understand that. You might, at the beginning, be uncertain of where the light comes from at night. The instructor, master, or teacher can direct you, and sometimes needs to direct you with the finger. But only a fool allows their eyes to rest there. The moon is where it’s at.

Even the water apprehends the moon perfectly without assistance. It knows moon without intermediary. A drop of dew does the same. The trick is how much finger, and how to make sure students do not replace moon with your presence, or worse, think that the moon was transmitted to them via your finger.

Now, on to the second issue: Skillful Means.

I’ve been reading a ton of [Brad Warner’s] (http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com) books and writings recently, and I like his take on skillful means about as much as I like Thich Naht Hahn’s. Warner defines it as, “doing the absolute best with what you have,” in Sit Down and Shut Up.

Skillful Means for the teacher is nothing new. You learn how to beg, borrow, and steal ideas for your class. You sift through the garbage at your institution for any good matter with which to teach. You take extra handouts you find in other classrooms. You listen carefully to your colleagues in order to get new or maybe more effective classroom ideas from them. In short, you are always reaching out, taking in, evaluating and editing ideas for the classroom.

When teaching, Skillful Means are there. You are always assessing how each line is being processed, accepted, or rejected by your students. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, the teacher extends a staff and the student must grab hold of it with blind trust to cross the river. Skillful means are how to get students to grab onto something they can’t quite see yet.

So the contradiction I am working through is how to avoid seeing Skillful Means as a Pointing to the Moon for pedagogy. I think I have substituted extension of Skillful Means for the Moon in pedagogy, and I wonder if I am alone. It’s quite satisfying to think that you have done great things for students and you have only really extended to them a stick, not realization of what “crossing the river” means or could mean.

The only solution for this paradox (perhaps it’s not a contradiction after all) is perhaps to broaden one’s teaching past the point of teaching skills to teaching skills within a larger narrative or context. The idea that one only has to debate well to understand debate is ridiculous at best, and pretty dangerous at worst. Look to the closest analogue to contemporary debate training that we have – the martial arts – and you find a very tightly wedded concept of ethics and a nice moral philosophy grounded deeply within the skills taught and tied directly to the promotion system of martial arts. We only seem to have and promote skills and have little concern for the context in which these skills operate. You teach someone to high kick, but you do not examine the ethical responsibilities that come with such a skill?

I think that the danger is that skillful means are very satisfying. That “Oooh!” moment becomes addictive. The cult of personality that arises around the teacher who awakens many students is also addictive. One begins to believe one is the Moon – or the realization. The counters to this are quite difficult to imagine and employ.

All of this is in the service of religious enlightenment, so it might seem difficult or unwise to marshal it for the teaching of rhetoric and debate. But enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition is generally thought of as realization that this world is all there is. So I think it can be quite useful for getting students out of their own heads, their own egos, their own beliefs about the world and into the way the world is perceived by the multitude of others.

Focus on the realizations that we share and perhaps we can appreciate the skillful means of others within a context that associates us more with each other rather than a dissociative context where there are the “good debaters” and everyone else. Working toward realization is everyone’s lifelong duty, if this perspective is adopted.