The following discussion of the Buddhist parable of the raft is excerpted from our upcoming online course, Secular Dharma. In the course, Stephen and Martine Batchelor lay out a new vision for understanding and practicing dharma in the contemporary world. Through these traditional parables, Stephen and Martine investigate the core elements of Buddhist thought and introduce practices geared toward the way we live today.
The Parable of the Raft
Imagine, friends, a man in the course of a journey who arrives at a great expanse of water, whose near bank is dangerous and whose far bank offers safety. But there is no ferryboat or bridge to take him across the water. So he thinks: ‘What if I collected grass, twigs, branches and leaves and bound them together as a raft? Supported by the raft and by paddling with my hands and feet, I should then be able to reach the far bank.’
“He does this and succeeds in getting across.
“On arriving at the far bank, it might occur to him: ‘This raft has been very helpful indeed. What if I were to hoist it on my head or shoulders, then proceed on my journey?’ Now, what do you think? By carrying it with him, would that man be doing what should be done with a raft?’
“’No, sir,’ replied his audience.
“’So what should he do with the raft? Having arrived at the far bank, he might think: ‘Yes, this raft has been very useful, but now I should just haul it onto dry land or leave it floating in the water, and then continue on my journey.’ In this way the man would be doing what should be done with that raft.
“The dharma too is like a raft. It serves the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of grasping.
“When you understand that the dharma is like a raft, and that you should let go even of positive things (dhamma), then how much more so should you let go of negative things (adhamma).” [MN 22]
This parable very clearly expresses an experience that many people in the time of Siddhartha Gautama would have had. Gautama lived at a point of great transition and change in Indian society. People were leaving their familiar rural environments that generations of their ancestors would have known and setting out on a journey into the unknown. Most of them would have been heading for new urban centers that were springing up throughout the India of the Buddha’s time. So this image of a person arriving at a riverbank would have spoken to the experience of many of Gautama’s followers, be they monks, nuns, laypeople, or any other persons who would have been repeatedly encountering serious obstacle in their lives.
Today, we can likewise understand this parable as referring to how life is constantly throwing new, unprecedented situations in our way. We keep finding ourselves in situations where the old solutions don’t seem to work anymore. It may be in terms of our philosophy of life or religious beliefs, or it may simply be that what has worked reasonably well so far in our lives, no longer seems to be effective. We hit obstacles, hindrances, and blockages—language that we find throughout the Buddhist tradition. And the way to deal with these situations is to employ the imagination and transform the resources that are already close to hand.
The person in the parable has to think, How can I get across this body of water? No one is there to tell him what to do. He has to figure this out for himself. He has to be imaginative and resourceful.
In this case, he looks around and finds whatever is within his reach that can float on water and be tied together. That is all he needs to build his raft.
Likewise, rather than simply following time-honored teachings, philosophies, and beliefs, we need to be more resourceful and more imaginative in how this practice of dharma is able to respond effectively to the needs we face in the kind of world we live in today. It calls for the imagination. A secular dharma approach is one that values the power of each practitioner’s own imagination and resourcefulness.
What the parable also is telling us is that the dharma is understood as a means not as an end. The practice of the dharma is very effective in resolving certain issues that might be obstructing us. But once it’s done its work, we can let go of it. If we become attached to the dharma, Buddhism, or any other form of religious practice—if we hold on to it as intrinsically valuable—it can turn into an obstacle, a burden that you keep carrying on your back even though you no longer have any need for it.
Here, Gautama presents us with the challenge of letting go of the very things that have been so helpful to us in the past and opening up a future in which we have the courage, the faith, and the capacity to move forward on our own resources and under our own steam.
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