Letting Go of the Raft

| September 3, 2011 | 7 Comments
 

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“I shall show you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping…”

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[MN 22.13 All translations of the sutta in this post are by Bhikkhu Bodhi]

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The Buddha’s simile of the raft gets a lot of use lately by those who feel others cling too firmly to the words the Buddha used and miss the spirit of his teachings. It also gets used to suggest that the Buddha intended that what he taught, or how he said it, is not of great importance, which allows us to take from it what we like, and ignore the rest.

In this little simile — which is part of a longer sermon (sutta) that tells a story — the Buddha describes someone who needs to get to the safety of the other shore because there is danger where he is, and there is no bridge or ferry or boat nearby, so he puts together a raft. When he gets to the other side, he’s so pleased with the raft that he decides to carry it around on his head. The Buddha asks his monks if that’s the right thing to do, and they are sure it is not. He agrees and suggests that the one who has crossed should put the raft down. He ends by saying:

“When you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings.”

This does seem to indicate that once one gets to the other shore (i.e. “is liberated”), one should let go of the Buddha’s Dhamma (teachings). But this is actually not what is being conveyed here, and it is only through taking the piece out of its context, and giving it a cursory reading framed in our preferred light, that it seems to say this.

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I have been asked why I am interested in learning the old language of Pali that the Buddha’s sermons are written in, and the misunderstandings about this simile provide an example of one of my reasons: because it’s only through becoming familiar with the way of speaking found in these old texts, and the nuances of the words used, that we have any chance of getting an accurate grip on the meaning.

So, for example, in trying to understand what’s being said, I looked at a later section in this sutta in which the Buddha says, “Material form is not yours. Abandon it.” A moment’s thought makes it clear he is not talking about leaving our bodies behind. It’s not possible that “abandoning one’s body” is the answer to the question of how to become liberated: there would never have been living, breathing, walking, talking liberated persons (arahants) if that was what he meant. So he may say “abandon form” but he doesn’t mean “abandon form”. He means abandon our attitudes toward “form” as self; that’s what he means by “material form is not yours”.  It isn’t “me”; it does not define “who I am” in any long-lasting way. What I need to abandon is the way I grasp at my physical nature as “being” myself. Maybe I think of myself as “the short one” or “the fat one” or “the freckled one” or “the pretty one”. None of those actually define me; they change, so they cannot be the permanent “me”.

This is why, when the Buddha says at the end of the simile, that what he teaches is raft-like, and so, like we would do to the raft, we should “abandon even the teachings”, he is using the same structure that he uses with abandoning form: not “abandon your body” but “stop assuming it defines you” — not “abandon the teachings” but “stop assuming your definition of the teaching is part of you.”  Stop grasping the dhamma as if it was part of your identity.

And because that isn’t yet quite clear enough, I found it helpful to look at the Pali words used, and the most telling one of all is the one translated above as “grasping”. I expected to find the most common Pali word that is the one usually translated as “grasping” which is “upadana” — one of the twelve steps of Dependent Arising. But the word here is “gahanatthaya” — which is actually a compound made up of two words: “gahana”, which is the “grasping” part and “atthaya” which means “gain, advantage, interest” — so it is talking about grasping for the sake of advantage.

Another clue (the last one I’ll offer in this post, though there are more) that the simile of the raft isn’t actually about abandoning what the Buddha taught when one becomes liberated comes from the last phrase:

“… how much more so things contrary to the teachings.”

The simile is just one part of a larger story about a monk who misunderstood what the Buddha was saying on a particular point, was quite certain of his view, proclaimed it loudly, and could not be talked out of it, and was crestfallen when the ultimate authority on the subject pointed out his error. Before the simile of the raft the Buddha offers up a simile of a man trying to catch a snake by its tail or coils. It’s clearly a demonstration of literal “wrong grasp” when we find that snake coiling around to bite us. And this is just what he’s telling the monks will happen if they go about misunderstanding and misrepresenting what’s being said.

So with the simile of the raft, the Buddha is pointing out that our understanding of the dhamma is for the sake of crossing over, not for the sake of loudly proclaiming our certainty about it. Nowhere in the sutta does the Buddha say that “crossing over” equates to liberation — liberation is not even mentioned in the simile — but since the sutta is about ignorance and misunderstandings and bragging on one’s certainty, it might be interpreted as “crossing over from ignorance” to at least some level of insight.  It’s not the dhamma itself that can be let go of when we have crossed over from ignorance to understanding, but the ways in which we grasp it, the ways in which we interpret it — particularly in relation to “self”, just as it’s not the body we let go of, but how we relate to it as self.

Our understanding of what the Buddha taught is the raft.  We build it ourselves by hand, often through information we have gathered and inspired by what we have seen others do.  We build it, modify it, try to understand why it works the way it does, and work to improve it; we practice.  It is all our attitudes and certainties about what’s being said that are the raft we use to cross, and that we shouldn’t wear as a hat when we reach the other shore, however pleased we are with our handiwork.

At the end of the simile of the snake, the Buddha says:

“Therefore, when you understand the meaning of my statements, remember it accordingly; and when you do not understand the meaning of my statements, then ask either me about it or those [monks] who are wise.”

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Linda

About the Author ()

After 20-odd years of trying to figure out what Buddhism was about, Linda Blanchard founded the Skeptical Buddhists’ Sangha in Second Life in 2007 to get her questions answered, and there discovered friends and community, along with a better understanding of the dharma. She is — very slowly — learning Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist literature. As a result, she’s written a few papers (on Dependent Arising) for the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Links to these can be found on the About page of her blog.

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  1. Dana Nourie says:

    Fascinating and enlightening, Linda. This was very helpful. I’ll think about it more. Hope to see more of these concerning other suttas:-) Really nice flow to this, and your points are well set out. I can see how important the translation part is, and why I hope we see more translations such as this.

  2. mknick says:

    One hears the Parable of the Raft all the time, but always presented in this monodimensional way as if the raft simply equals “the teachings.” Your last paragraph opened this sutta up in a way I had not considered before, but of course now it seems obvious. How much more gold lies buried beneath our English translations of the Pali texts? How many miners and how many years to unearth it all? Thanks, Linda, for the gift of another nugget.

  3. Nishant says:

    This is something of the kind I am reading for the first time.
    Wonderful post. I find the translations are perfect, as the spirit of the sutta vibrates in words.

  4. GuiDo says:

    Everyone’s interpretation of the words given in the Palicanon can therefore be a “raft”, and even Buddha’s own philosophy has consequently be seen as HIS raft. We have to abandon even this raft. This is the understanding of later Buddhism like Zen. Otherwise you get entangled in words. What is told here has to be applied to Buddha’s teaching itself, otherwise he would not have been a wise man.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I wonder if you didn’t get tangled in the words there GuiDo. The idea is to let go of the methods of understanding — of the words, or the approach — not to let go of the understanding itself. So in the sense that “the Buddha’s teaching” is not the words or the method, but the understanding of what he’s trying to get us to see for ourselves, no, we aren’t being told to let go of that (how can we? if he has shown us “the way things are” then once we’ve seen it, we can’t exactly unsee it, can we — and the whole moral structure of his teaching becomes no-longer just words, but a logical way of being that flows out from what we’ve seen). But in the sense that “the Buddha’s teaching” is the words he uses or the structures or methods, that we let go of as no longer needed. (Or rather, if they are still needed — mindfulness for example — then we use them because they are needed after what we have seen, not because they are the Buddha’s words and guidelines.)

      Yes, I agree that everyone’s interpretation of the words is a raft, the question is always whether it is well-made enough to get to the other shore of understanding.

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