The Parable of the Raft.

October 31, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the Buddha’s parable of the raft, a man wishes to cross a river to reach the safety of the far shore. To accomplish this he builds a raft to paddle across the dangerous river. The raft represents the dharma, or the Buddha’s teaching, and the far shore represents enlightenment. At the end of this parable the Buddha asks if the man should continue to carry the raft upon reaching the far shore or leave it behind.

Some with a small taste of higher consciousness use this parable to justify their not following some or all of the Buddha’s teaching. A better interpretation is that once the basics of a skill are mastered the adept need no longer refer back to them. A musician, for example, need not continually remind herself how to play. She just plays. In the same way, the enlightened one naturally expresses the Buddha’s teaching of right speech, right thought, compassion, etc. There is no need to think about it, it is just done.

There is an implicit flaw in interpreting this parable as saying that enlightenment is something that takes place in the future. Buddhist practice is to continually awaken from distraction to the present moment. It is in the now that enlightenment is realized. Zen Master Dogen says as much when he equates practice with enlightenment or tells us that Shiktanza, or just sitting, is the actualization of Buddha nature. The far shore does not exist in the future but right here, right now.

With that said, the parable might be interpreted as a representation of the mind trying to stay in the present moment, symbolized as the far shore. The river is the river of conscious and unconscious thought that distracts from the moment. Paddling the raft refers to the work needed to prevent the mind from following or being swept away by the river of thought.

In the early stage of meditation much effort is required to stay in the moment. Of particular importance to this effort is seeing the difference between thinking and one’s immediate surrounding. As this awareness develops brief moments of being alert and alive in the now may arise. It is during these effortless moments that the raft is temporarily left behind. As awareness once again gets distracted the raft must again be taken up. Practice, or dropping thought and returning to the present, must continue unabated to advance along the path. Waking to distraction and returning to the now. That is our practice.

When the mind calms and you start to feel more and more at peace you may start to believe that the far shore is at hand. Your practice, however, is still shallow. Awareness needs to step back and examine itself carefully to find subtle thoughts being followed almost unconsciously. These often arise as core beliefs that define you as, for example, unworthy, in danger, apart or something similar. Your task is to bring these beliefs into full awareness and let them go.

“To study the Buddha way, is to study self,” wrote Zen Master Dogen. “To study self, is to forget self.”

To be clear, the point of crossing the river is not to forget self in the nihilistic sense. You need only forget your false identification as a ‘this or that’ for your true nature to emerge. Then you discover that the “I” in your self is the same “I” in every self. This is the I of which the Buddha said at birth, “Between heaven and earth I alone am the honored one.”

Between the near shore of self and the far shore of no self is the river of life. How we honor life, how we actualize our Buddha nature in each and every moment is how we ride the raft.

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