Illusion and acceptance are things I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately as we linger in the final days of November before the holiday season. Although recent world events are casting a pall of uncertainty over things, I like to think the Super Moon on November 14 was a herald of some wisdom we cannot yet see. I say that because lunar tales abound throughout many cultures of the moon’s propensity to illuminate life’s ambiguities. One such story is of the rabbit in the moon.
A long time ago, a God, curious to learn more about the creatures he watched over from his sky-realm, took the form of an old man so that he could walk the earth. After journeying for a long time without food he became very hungry.
Eventually he came upon three creatures, a monkey, a fox and a rabbit, living together quite harmoniously. The God, in his human form, approached the trio and wondered: “which of these creatures will be the kindest? Which will be the most generous?
All three creatures greeted him and immediately became concerned for the old man’s welfare. They then ran off in search of food.
The cheerful monkey quickly returned laden with as much fresh fallen fruit as he could carry from the nearby trees. The thrifty fox went down to the water to retrieve a dead fish he had seen earlier on the riverbank. Meanwhile, the rabbit dashed this way and that. The only thing she knew how to do was gather grass to feed herself and soon she became sad she could not find any other food for the old man.
At long last the rabbit returned to the group and asked the monkey and the fox to build a fire. The monkey and the fox were puzzled but began doing as their friend asked.
The old man, the God in disguise, sat quietly by, watching in wonder. When the fire was blazing, the rabbit turned to the old man and said, “I have nothing to offer you but myself, so I am going to jump into the fire and, when I am quite roasted, please eat me as I cannot bear to see you go hungry.”
The rabbit then bent her knees and jumped into the fire. But the God, now so moved by the rabbit’s noble offering, grabbed her by her long ears before the flames could touch her. As his robes fell away he turned back into his God-form and shot sky-wards. Up to the moon he went, cradling the rabbit in his arms, until eventually, very gently, he lowered the rabbit back to Earth saying, “you may be just a rabbit, but now everyone will remember you, for there is your image that I have etched on the face of the moon, to shine on all people, for all time.”
Various versions of this story are told throughout Japan, China and India and particularly within the Buddhist tradition. The familiar markings on the face of the moon have become a symbolic touchstone for this fable’s lessons of selfless generosity and compassion. For many Westerners though, the moon’s markings are regarded as nothing more than an illusion, sometimes indulgently referred to as “the Man in the Moon”.
To get all scientific and sensible for a moment, the phenomena of seeing something that isn
’t actually there is known as a “pareidolia
” or the imagined perception of a pattern of meaning or significance where it does not actually exist. A pareidolia is literally seeing a face in an inanimate object or a cloud shaped like an angel. It is also a facet of our evolutionary heritage at work. We humans are pre-wired to make sense of things by matching them to something stored in our long-term collective knowledge. This of course served a useful purpose long ago when a shadow in the forest could potentially be a sabre-tooted tiger getting ready to pounce … which meant we had better run, and fast!
Seriously though, who among us hasn’t been guilty of a little pareidolia lately? Since a pareidolia is the product of our expectations, seeing a face on the moon reveals a lot more about how we are interpreting the world based on those expectations rather than anything that's actually within the moon.
Unfortunately, once that face is spotted, it's virtually impossible to un-see it. That's the thing about illusions, they have a remarkable tendency to formulate in our minds and then it becomes very difficult to un-think them ... or accept the truth when we finally see it. A pareidolia can be an extremely evocative and influential force because, if we really want to see something, our perceptual system will set out to do just that.
So in these uncertain times, perhaps we should question where our commonly held expectations have suddenly proven to be an illusion and where there might actually be something very real we need to be paying attention to instead. Maybe we should ask ourselves how ready we are to step up and be as virtuous and compassionate as the fabled Moon Rabbit by selflessly offering whatever we can to help alleviate dire situations around us. And just maybe, we humans should have faith in the hidden wisdom of certain outcomes that, at first glance, appear to be a step backwards but which may be, in fact, be a herald of deeper expectations beneath a surface disguise.
I believe each and every one of us is responsible in some way for that pall now draped upon our collective shoulders. Like the monkey, the fox and the rabbit, when the chips are down, the outcome will ultimately be determined by what each individual chooses to do in response to the inevitable challenges ahead.
Will that response be to take the easy route, as the monkey did by gathering fallen fruit? Or will we, like the fox, go back to retrieve something dead from the past? Perhaps we will run to and fro like the rabbit … then sit and stare at the moon awhile until the shock wears off and we can get down to the business of accepting what it is we really must do. I have to confess, I have been doing a lot of that last one the past couple of weeks.
In the waxing and waning energies of the moon lie the keys to a wisdom we cannot always see from our earthly abode - the wisdom that all things must change and all things that shine bright and clear for a time must inevitably go dark for a spell in order to return another day, in another form. Sometimes that form will inspire us with its new found light. Sometimes that form may remain dark until we are able to find a match and strike our own light to see by. Either way, as our bewildered gaze turns skyward, beseeching the starry night sky with the big questions, we may eventually exclaim: “look, is that a rabbit in the moon?” We simply have to have faith.