What does the Moon mean for you?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

What does the Moon mean for you? The answer depends very much on who you are. For astronomers, the Moon is an astronomical body in the universe, the fifth largest moon in the solar system that circles around the Earth in 27.322 days, and goes through its eight phases in 29.53 days with reference to the Sun. For meteorologists, the Moon, with its gravitational force, is an astronomical body that generates the tidal force, which causes high and low tides in the Earth’s oceans. For entrepreneurs, the Moon is an astronomical body with the rich potential for making profits by exploiting its natural resources.

The Moon, while it may be just another astronomical body in the universe for astronomers, meteorologists, and entrepreneurs, has always been a source of inspiration for their creative works for artists. In music, we are familiar with such compositions as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata, and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the third movement of his piano suite, Suite bergamasque (1905). The opera, Rusalka, composed by Antonin Dvorak, which was first performed in 1901, contains a beautiful aria, “Song to the Moon,” sung by its main character, the water sprite from Slavic mythology. Composers of popular songs, too, have found the Moon as a source of inspiration for their works, from Henry Mancini’s Moon River (1961), to The Police’s Walking on the Moon (1979), and to Savage Garden’s To the Moon and Back (1997), to name just a few.

The Moon has also been a source of inspiration for painters. One prominent example from Japanese masters of woodblock paintings is Hiroshige’s “Omi Hakkei: Ishiyama Akituki (The Eight Views of Omi: Autumn Moon in Ishiyama, 1834).” The painting shows the full moon shining over the Ishiyama Temple located in the present-day Shiga Prefecture, where Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in the Heian period (794-1185), is known to have spent some time while working on her novel, The Tale of Genji. Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1869) may be chosen as a representative painting from Western masters. Here the moon is depicted not as the familiar round shape but as a tortuously twisted shape, reflecting the mental pain van Gogh must have been going through when he painted this work as he was confined in a mental hospital at Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

What does the Moon mean for Buddhist practitioners? The Theravada tradition says that it was on the full-moon night that Siddhartha Gautama realized Enlightenment, thus becoming the Buddha. Thus, Thich Nhat Hanh, inheriting that tradition, writes in his biography of the Buddha: “The clouds rolled back to reveal the bright moon and stars. Gautama felt as though a prison which had confined him for thousands of years had broken open.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds, Chapter 18) What, then, did Gautama realize? It was, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, the means to over come ignorance: “And the means to overcome ignorance were the Noble Eightfold Path.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, ibid., Chapter18) While we can only speculate whether the discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path had something to do with the eight phases of the Moon, the Therevada tradition is still maintained in the form of the Uposatha practice, which involves reciting of the eight precepts for lay practitioners.

What is more important for Buddhist practitioners is, however, the fact that the Moon serves as a reminder of the impermanence of all formations, for the moon changes its visible shape to us as it orbits around the Earth. Some people may become oblivious of this visible change in the Moon’s shape as they are preoccupied with their worldly affairs filled with greed and hatred. One notable example of such obliviousness is Fujiwara no Michinaga, the most powerful member of the Fujiwara clan who dominated the imperial court in Heian period, who is known for the following waka: “Kono yo woba, wagayo tozo omou, mochizuki no kaketaru kotomo nashito omoeba (This world is my world, like the full moon in the sky on a clear fall night. The moon keeps shining on me while maintaining its full shape).” Needless to say, even a teenager knows that the Moon keeps changing its visible shape to us as exemplified by the following words of Juliet, which she utters in response to Romeo’s declaration of his love for her: “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, who monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” (Shakespeare, Rome and Juliet, Act II Scene II) The most convincing use of the moon as the metaphor for empty and illusionary nature of our existence in the world is found in the following words of Master Sheng Yen: “Our environment and all phenomena in it exist only temporarily. They are like reflections of the moon on the water—empty, illusory forms.” (Master Shen Yen, Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism, Boston: Shambhala, 2006, p. 128) While the Moon we look up in the sky may be real, the Moon reflected on the water is certainly illusory. Buddhist practitioners thus need to look down on the water to be reminded of the Buddhist Dharma that all formations are impermanent and illusory.