11 – Parable of the Raft

In this episode, I will discuss one of the Buddha’s most famous teachings: The Parable of the Raft. The general concept to be learned by this parable is the importance of letting go of the things that we no longer need on our journey. It would be wise to take a moment to reflect on what rafts we continue to cling to even after they are no longer necessary for us.

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Transcript of the podcast episode:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 11. I am your host Noah Rasheta and today I’m talking about the Parable of the Raft. Before we jump into the topic, I want to remind you that this podcast is produced every week, covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and Secular Humanism and the episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to Secular Buddhism, and to general Buddhist concepts. So if you’re new to the podcast, I definitely recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. After that all other episodes are just meant to be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Something I like to mention before starting is that, a quote from the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Just keep that in mind as you listen to this podcast, or to any of the topics discussed within the podcast series. There is no intent here to convert anyone to anything. I’m just sharing what’s meaningful to me as I’ve studied Buddhism in the last many years, and trying to share it in a way that inspire you to be a better whatever you already are. So remember if you enjoy this podcast please feel free to share it, write a review, give it a rating, all that really helps. Now lets’ jump into this week’s topic.

Hi guys. I’m excited to talk to you today about a parable called, “The raft parable.” This is a well-known teaching in Buddhism, that I think is quite popular because it has a great message. This comes from the Alagaddupama Sutta and this is also called, “The water-snake simile,” sutta, or teaching. The idea here … It’s two different stories and the first part of the story is about a water-snake and the second part of the story is about a raft, and they go hand in hand and there are various interpretations of what this parable means and what the moral of the story is, but just to give you a background really quick on the actual story.

The first part of the story is about a man who approaches a water-snake and he picks it up from the wrong end. He grabs the tail end. The snake turns around and bites him, and it’s a poisonous bite. He regrets that he picked it up the wrong way. The moral of that story is about when you’re learning the teachings of the Buddha, or the Dharma, if you grasp them in the wrong way it’s going to have consequences. It will put us in danger. So the idea is that as we’re studying, learning the teachings of the Buddha, that they need to be understood correctly because to understand them the wrong way is very much like picking up a snake from the wrong direction.

This understanding in the water-snake part of the story is probably what Nagarjuna had in mind when he said, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Then the raft story immediately follows the snake story. The idea of the Parable of the Raft, if there is a person who comes to a large body of water and he’s trying to get to the other side and this can be a river, can be an ocean, and I think it’s told differently in different translations, or in various interpretations, but again the idea is that he’s there, he needs to cross to the other side. There’s no way to do it, at least safely. So he starts to assemble all of the components that he needs to build a raft. The twigs and the branches and the rope and he spends all this effort and time building a small raft, and once it’s put together he relies on this raft to keep himself afloat and he makes his way across the body of water to reach the other side.

Then once he reaches the other side the idea is now that he’s there, is he supposed to leave the raft or is he supposed to drag it along with him or carry it on his back? What the Buddha taught is that he should leave it and he explained that the Dharma, or the teachings are like this raft. They can be useful for crossing over but not useful for grasping or holding on to. It’s a short and simple story and it’s been interpreted in many ways, and one of the understandings is that as you’re studying the teachings in Buddhism and you become awakened to what the meaning is of the teachings, are you supposed to continue hanging on to these teachings? Or do you let go?

Some argue that that is the interpretation as you become awakened or enlightened, then you let go of Buddhism entirely and others argue that that’s not the right interpretation, that it has more to do with the way that you grasp, or cling to these. What you’re supposed to do is let go of clinging and that the raft isn’t necessarily the teachings. The raft is letting go of or clinging to the teachings. Again there are several ways, several arguments. My intention isn’t to explain one of the arguments. I like the parable for other reasons. What I really like about the Parable of the Raft is the concept of something at one point being really meaningful in your life, maybe a lot of energy and effort went into it. This can be a relationship, or specific belief system, a job, something that was very meaningful to you and a lot of time and effort went into building that and then at some point in your journey, or on your path, it’s no longer relevant or important.

Well, it may be important, but it’s no longer necessary because you’ve reached the other side. So you let go of it and to continue to carry it would be taking this as an example, in a relationship it would be like being in a relationship with someone. All the time and effort that went into making that relationship important and meaningful and successful is like building that raft and then at some point the relationship ends. You’ve reached the shore, a new shore where it was no longer necessary to continue to carry the aspects of that relationship. Now that you’re not with that person, would be like carrying the raft. It’s unnecessary and it’s actually just hindering your progress at that point. One of the typical things that we do, assuming you are able to let go of the raft, or leave that raft behind. I think it’s also detrimental to look back on that specific [phase of your life and think that it was a waste of time.

So for example, again using the Parable of the Raft, at one point the raft meant everything of your time and energy went into building it. Once you’re on the raft and you’re over the water, or you’re floating on the water, the raft is a matter of life and death. That’s how meaningful that raft is to you, and once you reach the other side, it’s no longer necessary and let’s say somewhere down the road, even if you did … Either you’re carrying the raft, or you left the raft behind. It would be silly to look back on that phase and say, “Man, I wish I would have never wasted time building that raft. That was stupid,” because you’re saying this from the perspective of the person who’s already at the point of the journey where the raft is no longer necessary, but it’s like we forget that at one point it was and when you were on the water, that meant everything.

So if you were to apply this a relationship, or where I see this a lot is people who are transitioning in their faith journey and maybe at one point they belonged to a specific religion or they understood life through the lens of a specific school of thought, or a specific set of ideas, and then later at some point in their life they don’t and they look back on that and think, “Why did I ever believe that? How could I have been so silly?” Or something to that affect, but the concept is the same as the raft. It’s once you’re at a point in your life where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you, I think it’s detrimental to look back and regret the time or energy that was wasted on building the raft because you’re thinking, “I didn’t need that.” But you’re saying that from the perspective of a place where you are now where the raft doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s not necessary because maybe now you’re walking around on dry land.

We forget that at the time where we were in that part of our journey, the raft did mean everything to us. Even if it doesn’t mean anything to us now. So I kind of wanted to address this concept from the perspective of how in our journey, our faith journey, or our relationship journey, just the journey of life in general, we come across bodies of water and at times it’s important to build the raft and to spend all the time and energy on everything that we need to build a raft to cross that body of water. During that time the raft means everything to you and if you pause for a minute and think about the various stages in your life when you were building rafts, these rafts are very important to you. They mean everything to you.

It’s different things, right? It can be if you’re on a faith journey, it can be your beliefs or your convictions. If you’re thinking about relationships, it can be a specific person or there’s so many things that I think apply to this concept of the raft. If you were in a career, it could be the time and energy you spent studying for the Bar exam when you were trying to be … Learn to become an attorney, or again this is kind of endless. It can apply to so many things across so many different spectrums, but these are our rafts. In life, we’re constantly building rafts. Wherever you are right now in your life, you’re probably either building a raft, or you’re on the raft paddling to the other side of something.

One of the things … The two big mistakes that we make, is one when we get there, we just put the raft on our back and keep on going. This is the concept of not being able to let go. The second, assuming you are able to let go, is that you actually haven’t let go because now you are angry at the phase of life that you feel was wasted for spending time on the raft, that now you feel, “Well that’s a waste, that raft isn’t necessary,” but we forget that at the time, where we were in that place mentally, or emotionally, it was necessary. The raft was everything. It was a matter of life and death.

So from this lens the Parable of the Raft to me, for me personally is the story of understanding what it means to let go. I think there’s another story that helps illustrate the teaching of letting go and this is the Zen story of the two monks and a woman. The way this story goes, there were two monks. A senior monk and a junior monk and they’re traveling together and at some point in their travels they come to a river that has a strong current. It’s kind of a big river. The monks are getting ready to cross the river and at that point one of them sees a young and beautiful woman who’s trying to cross this river and the young woman asks them for help and the two monks kind of glance at each other, because they realize they have taken vows not to touch a woman. Without word, the older monk, the senior monk doesn’t say anything. He just picks up the woman, carries her across the river and gently places her on the other side. Then they continue their journey.

As they continue their journey, the younger monk just can’t believe what happened and this is festering and he’s thinking and thinking and at some point he finally speaks up and he’s like, “Hey, I don’t get it. We’ve taken vows to not touch a woman and how are you able to just pick her up and carry her on your shoulders and ut her on the other side? I don’t get it. You’ve broken your vow.” The older monk looks at him and just says, “I put the woman down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?” I think it’s a simple Zen story, like all Zen stories. It carries a simple, beautiful message about the concept of letting go and how often we carry something and we hold on to it and it’s there and it’s festering and it’s on our mind because we were not capable of letting go.

Again this Zen story, don’t read into any of the moral or ethics of the vows they had taken. None of that matters. The point of the story, the moral of that story is when you do something, you do something and then when you’re done you let it go. Applying this to the other Parable of the Raft, it’s very similar. There’s a raft that at the time, it makes sense to have a raft or build a raft or be on a raft, the raft can mean everything and then at moment that the raft no longer means anything to us, or it’s no longer necessary, you have the two options. You carry it with you, or you let it go. I think the letting go also has two options. Once you’ve let it go, you either let it go completely, or you let it go and let it fester on your mind that you’re mad that you ever carried it in the first place and that would be silly when you think about the concept. Just the story of the raft, you know?

It would be silly to look back and say, “Well I can’t believe I ever wasted time building that raft,” only because you’ve forgotten that there was a time when the raft did mean everything to you. So that’s what I wanted to discuss a little bit in this brief podcast, is the Parable of the Raft, and I would hope that you can spend some time looking in to your own life and think, “What are the rafts that I’ve built in my life? What are the bodies of water that I needed to cross and in order to do so safely, I had to rely on a raft? How did I build that raft? What was that raft to me?” Then, “In what ways am I still carrying the raft with me?” Again this might apply to relationships, to faith transitions or journeys, to career transitions, parenting transitions, so many different applications here, but in what way do you continue to carry the raft with you?

If you have let it go, or at least you think you’ve let it go, in what way are you actually still carrying it with you because you continually think of it? It’s still there on your mind or you resent the fact that you ever had to carry the raft on your back or you ever had to be on the raft in the first place, or that you wasted time and effort building a raft. I think there are so many levels that you can apply this to in day to day life and I think it’s a worthy mental exercise to spend time thinking about the Parable of the Raft and the teaching that the Buddha taught specific to the raft, was the importance of learning to let go of something that can be as meaningful and as important as a raft is. When your life depends on it, the raft means everything to you, but at some point when it doesn’t it’s okay to let it go and it can be detrimental to not let go.

I know in my own life I can think of several instances where things were as important to me, these were my rafts. They meant everything to me, and I thought I had let these things go. At some point, I’m like the younger of those two monks who realizes I haven’t let it go. It’s been festering and I’m thinking and at that moment you kind of unleash the question. Like, “Why? I don’t get it. You were supposed to …” you know it’s like you’re talking to that senior monk saying, “Why were you carrying her?” And that was hours ago. Or days ago, or months ago, or years ago. The wise monk will say, “I let that person down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying them?” That’s like I let go of the raft when I no longer needed it. Why are you still carrying it? This is a matter of wisdom, right? It’s not right, or wrong. I’m not saying you’re wrong for doing this, it’s just not wise. It’s not wise to be carrying a raft when you don’t need it.

At some point when you encounter a new body of water, then you’re going to spend the time an energy building a new raft to cross that body of water, but we don’t just carry these with us. So that’s the concept of the raft I’d love to hear what you think of the parable and specifically what this parable means to you. The various aspects, the water-snake and how we grasp things and how dangerous it is to grasp things from the wrong end, or improperly. Also the concept of the raft. What does it mean to you? What are some of your rafts? Let’s talk about these. You can email me or post it on our Secular Buddhism Facebook group, or on the blog post. Anywhere you want, I’d love to discuss these things. See if you can get to the root of what some of your personal rafts are, and what ways you can let go of these things.

So if you have any other questions or comments about this, please feel free to get a hold of me. Again like in all podcasts, if you enjoyed this, please feel free to write a review through iTunes or give it a rating and share this with someone who you think might enjoy the things that I’m sharing and teaching in these podcasts. Thank you for your time and I look forward to sharing another podcast with you next week. Thank you.