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Why Fools Point at the Moon

(About a 7 minute read)

It is a charming, ancient conceit that fools are secretly the wisest among us.  Everyone has heard that somewhere or another.  It is pervasive not merely in Europe — home to the court fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear — but worldwide.

Every culture seems to recognize the truth of it.  In Europe, fools are fixtures at the court of kings.  In the far East, they are sages.  In Africa, they are sometimes deities who wear multi-colored hats.  And among the Native American nations, they are Raven and Coyote. Jung would recognize the fool as an archetype of what he believed was the “collective human subconscious”.

But why do humans so often think wisdom is a property of fools?  It is easy to see why we ascribe it to wise men and women, but why specifically to fools?  What does the fool actually represent to us?

The question is not an easy one to answer. A large part of the problem is that the wisdom of the fool sometimes — perhaps even all the time — is almost impossible for normal people to acquire.  It is a treasure most of us simply don’t have.  But I think that might be our first clue.

The fool sits in contrast to the normal man and woman whose “wisdom” is not really wisdom at all.  Rather it consists of such notable blunders as, “Might makes right”, “All is fair in love and war”, “Someone else can save you”, and more recently, the notion “All it takes to get ahead is hard work”.

All the wisdom of normal men and women is no more than dung to the fool.  And for that reason we call him a fool.

But is that it?  All of it?

I do not think so.  I believe the concept of fool is much deeper than that.  Take Coyote, for instance.  He is many things.  A deity.  Sometimes the creator of humanity.  But — perhaps most profoundly — Coyote routinely shifts in one story to another from wisdom to genuine folly.

I believe that is a strong indication that Coyote represents consciousness itself.  For that is precisely what consciousness does.  Sometimes our thoughts are wise, sometimes they are folly.  And that seems true of all of us, for even sages seem to have foolish thoughts at times.

But the notion the fool is consciousness is not limited to North America’s indigenous peoples.  In Africa, the fool can also be a deity, and he can also be someone who divides people, causing them to fall into strife.

Divisiveness is yet another trait of consciousness. Not only are our own thoughts so often at war with each other, but the very nature of consciousness is to separate “me” from “not-me”, and to separate one thing from another.

It seems to me quite telling that in the African stories, the means whereby the fool causes neighbors to fall out with each other is precisely through creating seemingly legitimate differences of opinion between them.

So I think it can be said that the fool not only represents genuine wisdom — as opposed to the faux stuff possessed by normal people — but also represents consciousness.  Both identities tell us something about why the fool is imagined to be a fool, and not merely a sage.

A third trait of the fool is to be childlike, but not childish.  This is again an obvious way in which the fool is seen as different from us, for we have left childhood behind.

But I think this is a case in which the identity might be partly based on actual observation.  If you’ve ever known a truly spiritually enlightened person, then perhaps you have observed they possess many childlike traits.

In Japan, there are numerous stories of sages who come across as fools to normal people. One of the most telling story is of two wandering Zen monks. Both of the monks are ever-smiling fools, of course.  One of them carries a broom and is constantly sweeping away their tracks as they wander.

Now what does that mean?

I think here we see consciousness turning into the Zen concept of “no-mind”, which is the highest attainable form of awareness.  It is an awareness in which the mind is entirely empty of any conscious thoughts, including the thought that I am me and I am not you.

The other monk walks in front of the sweeper and constantly points at the moon.  That’s a famous image in Zen, of course, and it means at least three hugely important things.

First it means that ultimate wisdom, the wisdom of no-mind, cannot be described, at least to normal people who are only consciously aware of reality.

Second, it means that all words — all symbols — are merely “pointers”.  The word “barn” is not a barn, but merely the symbol for a barn.  A collection of the Buddha’s sayings is not the wisdom of the Buddha, but merely a set of symbols for that wisdom.  And a map is not the terrain it represents.

Last, pointing at the moon is a graphic symbol for the fact that we must look ourselves, rather than through the eyes of other people.  That is, true wisdom does not consist in any vicarious understanding of it, but only in a direct and immediate experience of it.

So what have we now?  Well, in the first place, the fool upsets and reverses the normal valuation of wisdom, showing that what most of us think is wise is actually folly, and that way most of us think is folly, is actually wise.

Second, the fool is both consciousness and no-consciousness. He leaves tracks and then erases them as he passes on by.  This, by the way, would illustrate to me many things, including the likely fact that enlightened individuals still possess normal consciousness but somehow manage to negate from moment to moment any effect it might have on them.

Last, the fool is no more than a symbol for the truth, but is not the truth itself.

Have we now captured the notion of the fool?  Of course not!  We have no more done so than a map is its terrain.

I sit in the evening
The rain on my face
Watching things rise
And watching things fall
And I don’t know the names
Of the things that I see
But I know what to do
And not do.

Comments? Questions?

4 thoughts on “Why Fools Point at the Moon”

  1. I was taken by the idea of the seven archetypes, as they connected with what I had learned about the seven basic chacras. I really think more women should read “Iron John” in order tu understand what is happening. Men are reimagining their true place in the world, not feeding into the “Men are the root of evil”-narrative that has sprung from feminism in the 90ies (?).
    This narrative never tickled my interest, since I was raised a feminist. But too many men and women nowadays are unsure about their places and beware I am not talking about roles. The funny thing about the archetypes is that they are ALL just aspects of the soul and you may be grounded in one of them at any given time. The idea of transcendence implies that you have to “rise up” in order to reach the “highest” form. The problem is that people cannot realize those archetypes are inter-dependent. You are never only one or the other, but always carry the potential to manifest all, if needed. So metaphorically speaking you can be your own court.

    The self-understanding many men and women lack is a barrier that prevents true understanding. I was never interested in seeing how men and women were different. To what end? To further feed strive and the “battle between the sexes” (to my another useless, co-opted myth, bred by ignorance and shame). I don’t accept the fact, that we need to sequester ourselves (even if sometimes the need to find recluse is a basic one). True understanding stems from contact and communication. So instead of figuring out how different we must be (not to forget the foolish, pardon the pun) notions about certain traits of men and women (derived from cheap books, even wrongfully alluding to the power of planets as if men and women were totally different species).

    No, both men and women are born on earth, they have been for as long as our ancestors decided to leave the trees. So, why don’t we foster and share what is already here, instead, doing it TOGETHER? To me this seems to be the only logical conclusion.


  2. I agree with you that men and women are substantially the same. I like to express it this way: We are 95% alike, 5% different, but we spend 95% of our time focused on our 5% difference.

    The other day I was thinking how exactly half my closest friends are women.


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