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