On July 27, a blood moon will glow an eerie red ahead of the longest lunar eclipse that Earth will experience in the 21st century. For one hour and 43 minutes, the moon will disappear from the sky, entirely obscured by the shadow that our planet casts upon it.
Unfortunately, not all Earthlings will get to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime extended celestial event. It will only be visible from parts of Africa, Europe, and South America if skies are clear.
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But there’s good news: All of us can enjoy the moon every night, and it’s always awesome, whether it’s a sliver or full and bright. The thrill of an unusual natural event like a lunar eclipse only highlights the fact that we ignore the everyday wonders that surround us all the time. We spend our days and nights staring at screens, and don’t gaze up at the sky nearly enough. That means we’re missing out on great riches that are available to everyone, but appreciated by only a few.
A 200-year-old Zen Buddhist parable perfectly illustrates the importance of gazing up at the heavens on a regular basis.
According to traditional lore, the Japanese Zen master and poet Ryokan Taigu, who lived from 1758 to 1831, was a happy hermit. He trained in a monastery for 10 years, then rejected conventional religion. He went on to live a simple life, meditating, writing poetry, occasionally drinking sake with rural farmers, and sharing his modest meals with the birds and beasts.
He didn’t have much to steal. But one night, a thief came to Ryokan’s spare mountain hut looking for treasure. The criminal found nothing of value and was disappointed, which saddened the Zen master. It’s said that the poet pressed his clothes—or his blanket, depending on which account you read—upon the thief, saying, “You’ve come such a long way to see me, please accept this gift.”
The stunned thief took the poet’s clothing. But he didn’t take anything that mattered to the Zen master, who reportedly spent the rest of the evening naked, gazing at the moon in the sky—a jewel that no one could steal, yet everyone can enjoy. Ryokan was still a bit sad, as he hadn’t been able to give the thief this most valuable of treasures. In his diary, the Zen master penned a now-famous poem about the experience:
The thief, left it behind—The moon at the window.
The story is told by Zen teachers to remind students that most people are attached to things that don’t really matter, while missing the marvels that abound in the natural world. Ryokan would have happily shared his greatest treasure with the thief, if only the visiting criminal could have seen it.
The moon in Buddhism is a symbol of enlightenment. Each of us could be illuminated, as bright as a full moon on a clear night, but our wisest, best nature is often obscured by clouds, writes author and professor of Buddhist studies at Lehigh University, Kenneth Kraft, in the Huffington Post.
Attachment and distractions prevent us from realizing that we already have what we need. According to Zen philosophers, existence is sufficient and there’s no need to grasp for power, money, or exciting experiences. The need to be thrilled and to seek more experiences—perhaps even the excitement of a lunar eclipse—is what causes our suffering, according to Kraft.
Yet we can always capture the treasure, the moon of illumination hidden behind our personal clouds. “Even amid delusion, there is awakening. Even amid awakening, there is delusion,” he writes.
Kraft points to a simple, circular, single-stroke ink image of the full moon by the early 19th century Japanese Zen painter Nantenbo to demonstrate the endless possibilities presented by common shapes and everyday things, whether the typical moon in the sky or a bowl in your kitchen cabinet. “A circle is whole yet empty, without beginning or end. So is the universe, in the Buddhist view,” the professor explains.
When we get in touch with the wholeness and possibilities of simple things, we become rich. And this wealth is available to anyone, even the poorest mountain hermit. That’s why Natenbo’s painting is accompanied by this inscription:
If you want the moon, here it is. Catch!
The moon as metaphor appears often in Buddhism. It symbolizes truth. And the Lankavatra Sutra, compiled around the 4th century, contains a lunar warning from the Buddha to disciples not to get confused about his teachings. “As the ignorant grasp the finger-tip and not the moon, so those who cling to the letter, know not my truth.”
This is a reminder to look to nature to understand reality. To be illuminated, we don’t need teachings or even teachers, though they may guide us.
“A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon,” explains Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha.
Blood moons are dramatic and exciting. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for one. But the attention we pay to these extraordinary celestial events is a bit like the finger pointing at the moon. If we only look up at the sky and admire the moon when something unusual happens—like a shift in color caused by a total lunar eclipse—then we’re missing out on the real treasure, just like the thief in Ryokan’s parable. A lunar eclipse only really matters to those who look up at the moonlit sky every night.
Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that the eclipse will be visible from parts of North America. It will not be.