THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF “FINGERISM” IN THE STUDY OF MOON POINTING TRADITIONS
The concept of “fingerism” is a rather recent arrival on the scene and is a purely Western creation. In the East where pointing at the moon originated, there is no concept even remotely like “fingerism”. Pointing at the moon is such an integral part of these cultures, that no distinction is made between the clearly spiritual aspect of pointing at the moon and the purely secular activity of pointing at various objects. Any gesture leaning one’s attention away from oneself is considered spiritual, even such mundane pointings as pointing out the nearest bathroom.
However in the late 18th century, as colonialism became well established in the East, westerners had enough leisure time and enough intellectual curiosity to begin to study the eastern habits of pointing at the moon. The term “fingerism” first appeared in an essay by I. M. Phalandgy entitled “On the Curious Custom of Pointing at the Moon”. In his essay Phalandgy noted that the moon pointing seemed to have a broader significance than pointing the way to the bathroom. People in the East would point at the moon in the same manner as they pointed to fruit in the market, or the way to the bathroom, even though they could not obtain the moon or even visit it. He coined the term “fingerism” to describe this seemingly pointless pointing.
In the intervening two centuries, we in the West have come to, at least, a basic understanding of what the finger pointing at the moon is about. Our studies of “fingerism” in the East have led to introducing both the word and the concept of “fingerism” into eastern vocabularies. This has been primarily due to our attempts to discuss “fingerism” with practicing “fingerists”. N. Dex in his pivotal work “FINGERISM & FINGERISTS” provides a wonderful glimpse of how interwoven the act of pointing is in eastern cultures. He relates that actually getting anyone to understand what he meant by “fingerism” usually took a week or more of intensive discussions. And at that time, in the middle of the last century, he relates that is was impossible to get across the concept of a “fingerist” because the concept of a “non-fingerist” was completely unknown and ununderstandable.
Today the concepts of “fingerism” and “fingerists” are well established both in the East and the West. In the West these concepts have fit right in with our long established concepts of “elbowism”, “BigToeism” and “Thumbism”. But the introduction of the concept of “fingerism” in the East has had the unfortunate side effect of subtly changing the way that the moon is pointed to – or perhaps the way the bathroom is pointed to. Whether the original way of pointing was the current moon-pointing way (and the bathroom-pointing way is new) or whether the original way of pointing was the current bathroom-pointing way (and the moon- pointing way is new) has become lost. Perhaps things were clearer when pointing was just pointing and the concept of pointing was not such a big deal.
20 Jan ’96