In Zen, we can tend to use a lot of metaphors and analogies. No harm in that; sometimes we need a “like this” in order to help someone comprehend what is arguably incomprehensible. And sometimes the metaphor or analogy may take on a life of its own, to the point where what it pointed to is lost altogether.
Without putting too much thought into it, “raft” and the “moon” are two that jump out. Metaphorically, we use the raft of our teacher and the teachings to help us get to the other side of our originally ignorant thinking, which would be to get to the other shore of wisdom. Then it's said we are to discard the raft, as there's no longer any need for a one when the river of delusion is crossed. Fair enough. But that doesn't mean we toss the teaching or the teacher aside and disregard them. They still have value for us to use at any time where the situation fits their need. If we do toss them away without regard for the purpose originally served, we’re right back in the “river” of discontent and in need of the teacher and the teachings all over again. The raft is a metaphor. We can reify a metaphor, but the metaphor is only an empty metaphor. To someone who has never seen a river, let alone a raft, the raft becomes doubly empty.
We often hear about mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Double metaphor! There is no finger, there is no moon. The ineffable moon is the Great Way. To call it “moon” is not correct. To call it “it,” is likewise incorrect. The “moon” and “Great Way” are fingers, and no more. There are any number of words from the Sutras and elsewhere that are the fingers. For those of us with limited capacities, we might need the direction of the finger to point the way; a smile may not do. That's been the case since Mahakashyapa smiled upon seeing a flower. I'm making a great leap here, but this was the lesson of the flower sermon. A rose is a rose. A kiss is just a kiss, a sight is just a sigh.
I can't say whether dogs have it over us other sentient beings. Throw a ball, then point to it, and the dog becomes enraptured with the finger. On the one hand, we're no different. We attach to the finger and forget all about the moon. On the other hand, if “cypress tree in the garden” is a valid response to “What is Buddha,” then maybe “the finger in my face” is valid as well, so long as there's an actual finger waving in my face. Other answers such as “dried shit on a stick” and “three pounds of flax” only work if you've just come out of a Chinese latrine, or happen to be weighing flax. But let's not attach to fingers, moons, sticks, trees, or fibrous plant material at the expense of what they're used to represent. What's right here, right now? The present, the immediate, the unjudged are. “What is Buddha?” Virtual words behind glass, the smell of fresh, ink stained paper.
When we hear about the dewdrop reflecting the moon, the metaphorical dewdrop reflecting the moon points to something. Or maybe there's just a dewdrop that at that moment happens to be reflecting the moon. It could be said that all phenomena reflect Buddha. If everything reflects Buddha, then there is no need to attach to moon, finger, raft, ignorance, wisdom, green, yellow, rivers, or mountains. In the vast Dharmakaya, there is none other than Buddha. So why bother asking the question “What is Buddha?” The answer is literally right before you eyes, and includes your eyes, what's behind them, and in all ten directions from them. Is there honestly any real reason to think about them at all? All our thinking does is give them name and form, and concepts, and as the “Mind Only” school might say, we are creating them as concepts of eyes and mountains and moons and ducks.
They're all just fine as they are, totally indifferent to our conceptualizing them, pondering them, analyzing them, or analogizing them. They don't worry. They don't need our validation to be what they are. They're as oblivious to us as we are to them until that moment when we cause “that rather large rocky thing that juts up out of the surrounding area” to become “mountain.” When our attention is distracted, we no longer think “mountain.” For us, “mountain” falls away and so far as we're concerned, “what mountain?” We may be at the foot of the mountain, but unless we are paying attention to where we are and what we're doing, what is taking place around us, even that which is there isn't there.
It happens in the other direction also. There's the story of some monks, strolling along the road, when a flock of ducks come into view, fly overhead, then pass. Mazu asks Baizhang where the ducks went. Baizhang replies that they flew away. At which point Mau proceeds to pull Baizhang's nose, and most likely with great force. (I make that assumption based on the likelihood that a gentle “got yer nose,” story probably wouldn't have endured for centuries). The nose was pulled because it was there, and the ducks weren't. They had flown along with Baizhang’s ability to pay attention. Baizhang falls into Master Ma’s checking trap. There had been ducks, now there are no ducks other than the ones still residing between Baizhang’s ears. When Baizhang’s nose heals, the nose stops hurting. But if Baizhang's grudge against Mazu doesn't heal, then Baizhang is hurting...himself. But any grudge passed, just like the flock of duck. I can well imagine Baizhang being hypervigilant any time he heard “quack.”
There are times where someone might say that the “nose” symbolized the “self,” and Mazu was trying to aid Baizhang in relieving his attachment to the “self” as if it were a separate entity. I can't say I agree with that. From what I've been taught and what I have read, Mazu seems extremely straightforward. I have no reason to suspect Baizhang’s attachment, if for no other reason than I'm not Baizhang. That which pulls the nose is Buddha, that which yells “Ouch” is Buddha, Baizhang’s bloody nose is Buddha, even the drops of blood on the ground are Buddha, whether they reflect the moon or not.
Use the raft, forget the raft, until the next time someone needs to hear about the raft. Then when they no longer need the raft, we can let them in on the secret that not only is there no raft, but there is no “other” shore. Unless you're explaining this on a beach or a river bank, “this” shore doesn't exist either. Point at the moon, but maybe not with a finger and not at the moon, unless it's nighttime and its relatively bright out. One can easily also use the moon and clouds if need be, so long as it's nighttime and gloomy.
But this is a great element of practice: Saying precisely what needs to be said at the correct time, and nothing more. I know of someone who was told that he was qualified to teach, and was even allowed to use words if he had to. But only if he had to with no laziness, no shortcuts, no lack of searching for the right non-word. And when a word is necessary, going straight is certainly something to aim for. The Diamond Sutra teaches this. A nose is no-nose, thus is it called “nose.”