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The Raft, a Buddhist Parable

July 7, 2010

A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety.

Yet there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves and vines and is able to fashion together a raft, sturdy enough to carry him. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now’?

The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.

The Buddha continues: What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?

The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.

The Buddha concluded by saying, ‘So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.’

3 Comments leave one →
  1. viewpacific permalink
    July 7, 2010 10:02 am

    I like your post about this classic reminder.
    I’ve done my own share of focusing on my”raft” of beliefs and then missing the journey.
    I’ve also been in discussions with friends about their own “rafts” and hearing them sharing what’s worked for them and what hasn’t worked for them. That’s helpful to me because it’s like enjoying an extra set of eyes on the world.
    I still have resistance to others who tell me their “raft” is the only set of beliefs that will get me across. Similarly, I don’t always accept that I should be paddling in the certain way they have paddled or with the same outlook of joy or angst. For me right now, I prefer to keep open to whatever experience happens.
    I wonder, though, if I’m missing anything in this teaching.

  2. July 7, 2010 6:57 am

    There is more to this simile. In one story of the Buddha, he was teaching that the Dhamma is like a snake, that when grasped unwisely can turn on you, but grasped rightly can be held safely. He then added this portion of the simile that when the dhamma and the practice is held correctly, that it is a tool to be used not a doctrine to just follow, because that too would be unwise. This was a story told by the Buddha to monks who hearing the monk Arittha stated that the Noble Eightfold Path were obstacle to the practice disagreed. The Buddha, understanding Bhikkhu Arittha explained in this simile.

    There is another parable (an actual parable, not a simile) where the Buddha explains all the practice in various images (the three poisons, the ten perfections, etc.). We are chased by all the fetters of the world and come to a river. We use eight logs (the Noble Eightfold Path) to make a raft. As we cross it takes much effort. He describes the gross nature of the mind as the swift deep currents, and as we get closer to the other shore, there are more subtle obstacles of branches under the water, and sandbars, etc.

    I bring this up, because while the simile of the raft does tell us to hold to the teachings lightly so that they do not become obstacles to our practice but tools for our success— the trip across the river is not an easy one. It is fraught with seen and unseen currents and obstacles that require us to use the raft and use much effort.

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  1. Simile of the Raft « Applied Buddhism

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