118 - Revisiting the Parable of the Raft

118 - Revisiting the Parable of the Raft

The Buddha said, “I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.” Everything in Buddhism, including Buddhism itself is a tool, a means to an end, but not the end itself. In this episode, I will revisit the parable of the raft and share my thoughts about what this teaching means to me.

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Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 118. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today, I’m going to revisit the Parable of the Raft. As always, keep in mind you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use it to learn to be a better whatever you already are. Before jumping into the podcast episode, I’d like to talk about the Zen kōan that I shared in the last podcast episode, and this is the kōan The Moon Cannot Be Stolen.

Reminder, the Zen kōan goes like this. Ryōkan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please, take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

Now, when I first heard this podcast, I thought it was a little funny and ironic, especially that last sentence that Ryōkan sat there naked watching the moon saying, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon,” and knowing that in our modern form of English in a very real way, he was giving him the moon as he sat there naked. That’s kind of a funny irony just with the evolution of language and the meaning of words, and I couldn’t help but to chuckle the first time I heard this kōan.

I want to talk about this a little bit. As I mentioned before, I post this in the Patreon group, and I like to hear some of the discussions that come out of that and some of the thoughts that other podcast listeners share. I want to share a couple of these because I think they hit on what this kōan means for me. The first one comes from Bob. This is Bob’s comment on the kōan.

He says, “To me Ryōkan is saying, ‘I wish this man could appreciate what he already has. I wish I could give him that appreciation.’ This interpretation reminds me of what David Steindl-Rast said about you can’t be happy without having gratitude. If the thief appreciated the moon, if he had gratitude for the moon, then he would be happy. Without that gratitude, he cannot be happy. He wasn’t even grateful when Ryōkan gave him his clothes. Instead, he was bewildered, so much so that he took the clothes and slunk away. Happy people do not slink away. The man cannot be happy until he has gratitude. He won’t enjoy anything until he learns to be grateful for what he already has around him, like the beauty of the moon.” That’s what Bob shared. Thank you, Bob, for sharing that. I agree, and I think that a lot of what this kōan can tell us is the appreciation that we have for things that cannot be given to us.

Now, [Imray 00:03:25] shared this on the discussion. Imray says, “The Zen master has realized that materialistic things on their own are not what make us more content. Instead, it is the feeling for gratitude and the compassion we feel for others. He gives his clothes to the thief, but he knows that this will not help the thief to become free from suffering. The Zen master, however, is free from suffering. He is able to find peace in the situation he finds himself in and skillfully accepts it as it is. This also includes being grateful for things which seem mundane, such as the beautiful moon. Also, instead of fighting the thief, which would likely lead to more suffering on both sides, he finds a skillful alternative. Not only does acting compassionately contribute to the Zen master’s own balanced mental state, it might also help the thief to rethink his unskillful practice of stealing.” Close quote.

Thank you, Imray, for sharing your thoughts. I like the expansion on that thought that… This kind of reminds me if you’re familiar with the story of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean goes to steal the possessions of the priest at the church where he’s staying, and when the priest realizes later, because the police caught Jean Valjean and they bring him back, I think he acts skillfully in that moment.

Instead of saying, “Yeah, he stole my stuff,” he goes on and says, “No, you forgot. You forgot these other things that I meant for you to have,” and he goes on and gives him more possessions. Jean Valjean, in a way, he took those things, and he slunk away, kind of like in this kōan. But if you know the story, that was the catalyst for a major shift in Jean Valjean’s way of living. We all know the rest of the story, if you’re familiar with that book or with the play or with the movie.

I think that’s kind of what Imray is alluding to here in these comments, that this Zen master is perhaps acting skillfully in a way that sets in motion a new way of being for the thief that we don’t know because we don’t know the rest of the story. That’s really not important, whether this person slunk away and changed their life. It’s possible. Maybe they slunk away, and they kept thieving. That’s also possible too. But here’s what really stands out to me is that Ryōkan sat there naked watching the moon, “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful noon.”

To me, it’s really telling that in spite of the situation or the circumstances that just unfolded, you’ve literally just been robbed, there’s complete contentment and inner peace with Ryōkan because Ryōkan understands something much more profound than what the thief understands. To me, this hints of the story of Angulimala, if you’ll recall, the serial killer that was somewhat stopped in his tracks by the Buddha when he encountered him because he was surprised that the Buddha wasn’t scared or running from him, and the Buddha replied, “I stopped running long ago. It’s you that hasn’t stopped running.”

That interaction in that moment did something really profound to Angulimala. If you know that story, he did go on and change his ways, and he became a monk. There’s a lot to that story, but it all started with that one moment where he was kind of shocked, like, “Why are you not running from me? I’m a killer. In the same way that this thief was bewildered, I came to rob from you, and instead, you’re giving me stuff.”

To me, this is because Ryōkan knows that he cannot give away the moon in the same way that he knows that he cannot give away his inner peace. His inner peace is something that’s his, that he has come to attain, but he can’t give that away, and yet without having to give it away, he has the ability to be skillful in that moment to where it may spark in this thief later the inner quest to find that same sense of peace that he observed that Ryōkan had.

Now, again, we don’t know that it doesn’t… The point of the story isn’t about what happens next. In this case, it’s about what happened in that moment, and Ryōkan was able to see and understand something that the thief wasn’t. To me, that’s a really profound teaching. It makes me want to look at the things in my life that I see and that I appreciate and that bring me inner peace and to question are these things that I could give away? If someone came to try to rob me, would I give them the thing that I think that’s giving me happiness? I think about this a lot, what are the things that bring me joy?

These are some of the material things would be things like my para motor or my paragliding wing or my cell phone or my computer. These are things that I use in a day-to-day setting that bring me joy. My computer because it’s my line of work, and it helps me make money, and the money I can use to do things that bring joy to myself and to our family. But if someone came to steal it, I like to think that I have been a skillful enough to understand that it’s not the computer. That’s not the thing, and while it would be inconvenient, I really wouldn’t… I don’t need this. I could always find another way, and to some degree, a part of me might be able to react like Ryōkan and to say, “Okay, we’ll take this. I wish I could give you what you’re really after,” because this is the truth of this matter here is that whatever the thief has after, that thing that they think they’re getting isn’t going to give them what they really want.

To me, this is what Ryōkan was able to see. It’s also what the Buddha was able to see with Angulimala, which is the thing you think that you’re going to get once you take this, whether it’s my life or my computer or my paraglider wing or whatever you’re trying to take from me, that thing that you think you’re going to gain out of this, you’re not going to, and I see that, but you don’t. If I can see that and I understand that, then I don’t have this strong attachment to what’s happening right now, and you can take this because I realize that you’re not going to get what you think you’re getting out of this.

That, to me, is what this specific kōan is conveying. The moon cannot be stolen in the same way that my inner peace cannot be taken from me. That is a really profound understanding for me. That’s how I view that. Hopefully, that was a fun parable for you to explore and see what it means to you. Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion on Patreon, and to those of you who listen to the podcast regularly, I hope it was a beneficial Zen kōan for you to explore.

Having explored that one a little bit, now I do want to jump into the podcast episode. Revisiting the Parable of the Raft. I originally spoke about the Parable of the Raft in episode 11, so it’s been a long time, over a hundred episodes ago. This would have been I believe 2016 when I first talked about it, so I thought it would be fun to revisit it because this Parable of the Raft has been a very meaningful and profound teaching for me in my own life, and I know that it has for several of you who listened to the podcast because you’ve emailed me and told me how meaningful that one teaching was, that one concept, that one idea, so I thought it would be fun to revisit this one again.

The first thought of this for me came up while I was in Nepal last month. Something that really stood out to me was this concept and the idea of tools. The Parable of the Raft, as we’ll get into here in a minute, is about means versus ends, tools versus what the tools give us. While we were hiking in Nepal, I couldn’t help but to notice that many of us were dressed in our Columbia or North Face or whatever kind of brand of outdoor clothing because that’s what you’re supposed to wear when you’re going to be outdoors and you’re hiking in Nepal.

We had our walking sticks and our poles and our hiking boots that were from the right brand to be doing the activity that we were doing, and not to mention the clothes and the tents that we were sleeping in and everything. It kind of reminded me at times like the ski bunnies, the concept of a ski bunny. If you’re not familiar with this, where I live, it’s a ski community, and in the ski community, you observe what we call ski bunnies. These are people who show up to come skiing, and these are people who often have never skied before.

They’re there for the very first time. They went to the store to buy all of their ski supplies, and they’re wearing the proper brand of a jacket and ski boots and ski pants and gloves and their expensive ski goggles and everything that they needed to go skiing, and they usually stand out because they are equipped to the tee with the right gear, but they also don’t know how to ski. They’re called ski bunnies. It’s just a term. It’s kind of derogatory, but it’s a real term in that ski community to point out the ski bunnies, the ones who are dressed up for it but don’t really know what they’re doing.

I had this thought while we were in Nepal that in a way we were there kind of like ski bunnies. We’re all wearing all the right gear to make this trek easier. Then you look around at the Sherpas, and they’re carrying 5-10 times the weight that we are, and they’re not wearing any brand name anything. They’re wearing ragged clothes that they’ve worn year after year. Often, you’d see them wearing flip flops made from knockoff brands, and they’re almost to the point where they need to be replaced. We’re wearing boots and wool socks and all the things that we thought we needed.

Then they kind of prove to you that you don’t. You can wear flip flops that are almost falling off because they’re so old and broken, and they’re doing the hike significantly faster than we are, and carrying significantly more weight than we were. That really stood out to me. This is not to denigrate in any way what we were dressed as. To me, what this highlighted was we need these tools because we do not have the experience that they have to be capable of doing this in flip flops. That’s what stood out to me. It wasn’t about thinking, “Oh, we should not wear our name brand clothing as we do this.” That wasn’t the thought.

Then furthermore, this turned into the thought about how we practice Buddhism. It’s like the concept of ski bunnies or Buddhist bunnies, or the other practitioners that are there and saying, “I’m ready to jump into this. I’ve got my fancy meditation cushion, and I just bought my mala beads, and I’m wearing my necklace, and I bought this fancy incense holder, and I’ve got my whole setup of my tools to help me be more mindful,” and then we come to find out that it’s still not easy to be mindful because the tools themselves are just tools. They’re the means. They’re not the ends, in the same way that buying the nicest skis and boots and pants and jacket aren’t going to make you any better at skiing.

If you’re really good at skiing, you can do it with whatever gear you happen to have, or going back to Nepal, when you hike the trail day in and day out for your whole life, you can do it with whatever you’ve got on. You don’t need the fancy boots. You don’t need the walking sticks. You don’t need anything. You just do it because that’s what you know how to do. I loved thinking about that in terms of Buddhism. The master is the one that you see who doesn’t need any of it, doesn’t need the tools, doesn’t need the bracelet, doesn’t need the incense, doesn’t need the little Buddhist statue at home. Doesn’t need any of it.

Now, that’s not to say, “Okay, then I want to throw all my stuff away.” That’s not the point of this. The point of this is recognizing do I see these things as tools, or am I hanging onto them? To me, this speaks 100% to the teaching that the Buddha gave, the Parable of the Raft, and that’s why I wanted to revisit it in this new context that I’ve come to see it after my experience in Nepal.

I want to share the raft simile, as it’s called. This comes from the Alagaddūpama Sutta… We’ll just assume that’s the right way of saying it… which is from the Majjhima Nikaya. Now, again, all of the translations for these are available online, and I’m taking this one from dhammatalks.org. I’ll put the link in the description or put it in the notes on the website when I publish this, but this one comes from MN 22. That’s the acronym, which stands for Majjhima Nikaya, MN22. Again, I’m just giving you that background because some of you want to dig into it and read it for yourself from the actual source. That’s where you can find it.

Here is the raft simile quoted word for word from the translation of Access to Insight. “Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding on to. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak.” Now, again, this is the Buddha speaking to a group of monks.

Here’s what they say back. “‘As you say, Lord,’ the monks responded to the Blessed One. The Blessed One said, ‘Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferry boat nor a bridge, going from this shore to the other, the thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water with the near shore dubious and risky and further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other, what if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and having bound them together to make a raft where to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands and feet?’

Then the man having gathered grass, twigs, branches and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me, for it was in dependence on this raft that making an effort with my hands and feet I have crossed over to the safety on the further shore. Why don’t I having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back go wherever I like.’

What do you think, monks? Would the man and doing that be doing what should be done with the raft?’ ‘No, Lord.’ ‘And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man having crossed over with think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me, for it was in dependence on this raft, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I haven’t dragged it on the land or sinking it in the water go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas to say nothing of non-Dhammas.'” Close quote.

That is the raft simile. The gist of the story of the Parable of the Raft for me is as follows. The person who comes to the large body of water and is trying to figure out how to the other side puts in the energy and the effort of building his own raft. Once he built it, he uses it to stay afloat to make himself capable of crossing over that body of water to reach the other side. Once that person reaches the other side, the dilemma or the question is presented, should they carry it or should they leave it behind? As the Buddha concludes at the end, he says, “In the same way, monks, that I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding on to,” this is understanding the Dhamma as compared to this raft that it should be let go.

I like that in the original translation he says letting go of Dhammas. These are teachings, Buddhist teachings, and then goes on to say, “To say nothing of non-Dhammas,” so it’s like even the things that you hold on to as these sacred teachings and truths, let go of those. Well, what does that say about things that you don’t even consider sacred teachings and truths? To me, this is like saying if your deepest-held views and convictions are meant to be tools to get you across, not meant to be things to hang on to, what does that say about things that aren’t even your deeply-held truths? These are like the lesser truth, like the sports teams that you attach to or the political views that you adhere to. That’s how I view that.

I think it’s a simple distinction between the goal and the means, and the goal is to get across. The goal is to cross over, and the means for doing so, that’s the raft. Once you get across the river, there’s no point in carrying that raft along you. For me, again, in Buddhism, this distinction is very important because there can be a multitude of means. The raft is just one. There could have been other ways to get across. It could have been building a bridge. It could have been creating floating shoes. It could have been a flying a paraglider over. It could have been anything that would have been the means for crossing over, but while the goal was to cross over, all of those means end up being the same. There just means. In the moment you don’t need them, they’re not meant to be clung to and to carry on with.

I think in Buddhist practice, very often, we confuse those two things, and we keep chasing after the means while forgetting what the goal was. I see practitioners all the time arguing about this, which is the right school of Buddhism, which is the proper way to interpret this, is secular Buddhism better than classical Buddhism, is classical Buddhism the right way? It goes on and on and on. I think one of the things we can extract from this parable is the cautionary tale against clinging onto one view.

If you have a view, fine, but don’t clean to it. Your view might change. That’s where we often experience the discomfort that arises in suffering. The moment I… What worked for me as a view at one stage of my life, circumstances in life shift, and here I am clinging onto that view, and now it’s causing me a lot of pain and discomfort in the same way that it would for me to carry a heavy raft on my back while I’m trying to climb a mountain now because climbing the mountain is the new goal, not crossing the river, and the tool that worked for crossing the river does not work well as the tool for climbing the mountain.

That, to me, is the essence of this teaching. What am I doing right now? What stage am I in my life? What tools are useful to me for what I’m doing right now, and how willing am I to let go of those tools the moment I no longer need these? I think this can get really complicated really quick because in Buddhism, we’re trying to reach this stage of not wanting. This is like saying reaching the point where there is no goal. Then in that case, you have to ask, well, then what is the raft, what is the river, what is the goal?

If you ponder this distinction between the goal and the means to achieving the goal, you can ask yourself this other question. With the Buddha having achieved enlightenment, then why did he continue to meditate for the next 45 years after having achieved enlightenment? Well, to me, that is like saying, “Well, the point of the practice is practicing. The point of the practice isn’t to achieve enlightenment,” because if that were the case, then what’s the point of continuing to practice?

Well, I like thinking about this in terms of a musical instrument. My son plays the cello. I used to play the violin. A lot of people play musical instruments. You can ask yourself, “Well, why do I continue to practice? I already know how to play it.” Well, the reason you continue to practice it is because the goal was to play music. The goal wasn’t to make it onto the first seat in my orchestra. That may have been the goal at one point, but once I achieved that goal, why would I keep playing? Well, because there’s another goal, and then there’s another goal, and at some point, I realized there is no goal. All I’m trying to do is play music. I guess you could say that that is the goal, but it’s not a goal at that point. It’s just this is what I do because it’s what I do. That’s something fun to think about in terms of the Parable of the Raft.

In Buddhism, there are a lot of tools that we have. I was thinking about this, again, correlating the walking sticks, the certain brand of shirts that we were wearing, the hiking boots. Now, these are tools for hiking. Again, I’m not insinuating in any of this that, “Oh, well, if next time I go to Nepal, I’m not going to take any of my fancy gear that I used.” That’s not what I’m saying. I need those boots. I can’t do it in flip flops, so I’m going to do it wearing boots. It’s fine as long as I understand these are just tools.

I think where this becomes a deeper concept is how I approach practicing Buddhism. There are a lot of tools in Buddhism, like wearing mala beads or lighting incense or meditating on a cushion, doing chanting, having flowers. The Lotus flowers is highly symbolic, Buddhism meditation itself, like these are all tools. For me, it was helpful to transition that thought of what are these things that I encounter in my Buddhist practice? Some of them would kind of turn me off because it’s like, “Ah, I don’t like this thing. This, to me, screams of religion or it screams of worshiping or… ” but when I realized they’re all just tools, there’s a reason why the tool’s there, but you don’t need the tool.

This is where this cool shift happens. I wear mala beads from time to time. I wear them now, and I like them, but I think the reason I like them is because they don’t mean anything to me there. It’s a tool. I’ve used them in meditation the way that you’re taught to use them. I’ve tried that. Then I found my own way to continue using them, but I see it as a tool. If someone comes into my house and they see a painting of the Buddha on the wall, again, to me that’s just a tool. There’s no way it could be denigrated because I don’t hold it as anything other than a tool in the same way that Ryōkan viewed his possessions, his clothes for example. Someone comes to steal them, you can have them. I’ll give them to you. I’m not going to feel attached to them because I can sit here naked watching the moon the same way that Ryōkan did and say, “I wish I could give you this beautiful moon.”

Again, I’m trying to correlate all of these concepts, ideas into one single frame of thought, which is the raft. What are the rafts in your life? I would consider thinking that the raft is every single tool, whether it’s the meditation cushion that you sit on or the deeply-held conviction that you have of some view or belief. They’re still just tools, in the same way that even our thoughts and words are just tools. That’s something fun to think about. Language is a tool.

Alan Watts said, “We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own, for we think in terms of languages and images, which we did not invent but which were given to us by our society.” That, to me, is a really profound view. It’s like understanding that even my deepest thoughts and views and ideas are a lot like my clothes that someone could come and, “Well, you’re not stealing. I’ll just give them to you because the naked me that doesn’t have my thoughts or my language or my words or the pictures in my head, then what’s there?” That’s a fascinating mental exploration, what’s really there?

I think it’s really hard to notice something that can’t be described by the words we already have available to us, and yet that’s what we’re trying to do in this practice. We’re trying to notice, we’re trying to see, “Well, what will you notice if you didn’t even know the word notice?” The words are only tools, and that thing that’s there that we can’t even think about without the words to think about, that thing is there, even if the tools are not there. That’s a fun exploration, a lot like the moon is there a ready to be appreciated whether or not I have clothing on, whether or not I have possessions, whether or not I’m being robbed. It’s just there.

That’s what I wanted to share with you. That’s a fun, fun mental exploration of revisiting the Parable of the Raft, and that’s all I have for this podcast episode. I’ll share the next Zen kōan with you here in a minute, but I want to, again, say thank you for listening, thank you for being a part of this journey with me. As always, if you want to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, consider becoming a Patreon and joining the online community where we discuss the kōans and podcast episodes and more. You can learn about all of that by visiting secularbuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, feel free to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. That’s all I have for now, but as always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon.

Before I go, here is your Zen kōan to work with this week. This one is called No Water, No Moon. When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku, she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last, one moonlit night, she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke, and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment, Chiyono was set free. In commemoration, she wrote a poem. “In this way and that, I tried to save the old pail. Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break. Until, at last, the bottom fell out. No more water in the pail. No more moon in the water.” Thanks again. Until next time.



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Written by

Noah Rasheta

Noah Rasheta

Kamas, UT
Having fun living life. Podcast Host | Author | Paramotor Flight Instructor