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Buddhism, Reflection and Truth

Updated: Apr 9

The symbolism of reaching for the light

by Jessica Lee McMillan


Ohara Koson “Monkey Catching Reflection of the Moon.” Wikimedia Commons

Koson’s Zen painting contemplates the perceived divisions between reality and illusion. Seeing the circular image in the water, the Monkey is dazzled by the “source” of light but it is not the original source. In the search for truth, we are in the same predicament in this analogy because the moon is also not an originator of light.


The Source of Light

While we may have a doctrinal concept of the moon and spiritual truth being “out there,” the concept of the Buddha-nature, or luminous nature of mind, allows us to see that the light need not be an external entity or an illusion, but rather, a revealing of something inside.

In his discussion on truth and science, The Dalai Lama describes his astonishment when he realized as a young child that the moon does not emanate light. As an adult, he seeks answers from the greatest scientific minds and connects the aims of science to Buddhism in shedding illusory and archaic notions of the universe in a mutual aim to seek the truth.

The painting of the monkey reaching for the moon in the water illustrates the mechanisms of seeking the truth or “things as they really are”. I would argue that in the analogy, it does not matter whether the reflection in the water is an illusion if we contemplate the reflection and moon as both referents of our true, inner light— the limitlessness self that is ultimately connected to the source (the Universe).


Finding Truth

Perhaps our experience of finding the truth is not universal, just as Buddha’s many manifestations and diverse Buddhist scriptures reflect the needs of people in a range of mental states from diverse backgrounds. That is, there are many reflections (us) and one source (the Truth).

Buddhist scriptures may also play out in our lived experience in different ways, just as my interpretation of a Zen painting will strike a specific resonance, like scripture itself, in how I incorporate it. If the monkey were to reflect on the transience of life by watching the moon on the rippling surface, it would be closer to accepting a truth of reality.

The Dalai Lama argues the truth that science reveals enriches our worldview, just as Buddhism unveils the existential intricacies of the self and “the way things really are”. Scriptures and science shine a light and change us. In its deep associations with transformation, the moon is a potent symbol for the search for truth and our resultant transformation.


Reaching for the Light

The lesson of this painting is in the ambiguity itself. It does not confirm an identifiable maximum one can use as an external pillar — like a celestial body “out there”— by which one can rely on. It is an object of and for contemplation.

The challenge of contemplating inner truth is the cloud of illusion and unclear thinking, which is part of being human in the wheel of samsara. In Buddhism, the challenge is working toward the Dharma to be realized — the search for Truth. Similarly, the scientific method uses hypotheses to find the truth but cannot control the diversity of possible outcomes.

It is the reaching that is the work, much like the monkey reaches into the water and connects to light. The monkey may not connect to the source, but the moon is also not a source. As such, the Buddha himself is not a god, not an externalized, celestial body but an eminence — a luminary — of all reflections of those reaching for the Dharma in search of the Truth. The Truth is not “out there” but rather an innate part of our makeup as beings who reflect.


This is an interpretation inspired by the HarvardX course Buddhism Through Its Scriptures taught online by Dr. Charles Hallisey. Jessica Lee McMillan © 2020

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