The Parable of the Raft is probably one of the most famous parables taught by the Buddha. He compared his own teachings to a raft that could be used to cross the river, but should be discarded when one made it safely to the other shore.
A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty – but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’”
The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.
The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”
The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.
The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with – not for seizing hold of.”
This is a very simple teaching that actually does not require much explanation. But like many simple teachings, this parable has caused some misunderstanding. Some of the interpreters suggested that the raft in this parable was to symbolize morality. This, however is not the case. The Buddha considered his teachings, Dharma, to be a means of practice and not something to be held as a dogma and worshiped, but he never suggest that morality as such was something to be abandoned once Enlightenment was attained.
Buddhist teachings are neither the “map” nor the territory to be traversed. They rather present the means to progress on a path towards the final goal of Enlightenment. Like the raft in the parable they should be discarded when one achieved his or her goal. There is no need for them anymore. They are of no use “on the other side”. An adept must understand that after the teachings have served their purpose they should be discarded. They are no longer useful for the individual who made it to the other shore. An enlightened person possesses wisdom of his or her own and does not have to venerate the teachings that made his or her Enlightenment possible. But enlightened existence is not an existence beyond the good and evil. Morality still applies here, probably even more so because the enlightened person achieved a higher understanding of the complexities of life within a society. But like everything else, our personal ethics undergoes evolution as we grow spiritually. Moral systems of the societies tend to evolve with time as well. What was once vehemently rejected as immoral may be widely accepted by a society that seems to have matured to another stage of development. The same is true for values that were once accepted, but are no longer valid. Therefore, holding on uncritically to any set of rules or teachings after they fulfilled their role is futile.
The raft in the parable does not only symbolize the religious or moral dogmas that were given to us by a great teacher. They may also symbolize our personal beliefs. Every day of our lives we learn and experience new things that have to be incorporated into our personal belief systems. Some facts are simply rejected because they contradict our philosophies, others seem to be compatible with our beliefs and confirm that we are on the right track. They become ours and we hold on to them. In life, we not only tend to hold on to things that are dear to us, but we also cherish the beliefs that passed the test of time. And we do not only create our own dogmas, we also accept the dogmas created by others. Like the man on the one shore, we gather our twigs and branches and create our personal raft that carries us through the currents of life over to the other shore and forget to discard it when we get there safely.
Our philosophies and belief systems help us not only to navigate the most difficult life situations, they help us grow and mature. But very often, what served us well until we moved on to where we are right now, may not be as useful as it was before we got here. And yet, we adhere to such outmoded belief systems without even acknowledging the possibility that they may hinder our personal advancement in the future. Worse, we not only rigidly adhere to our own set of beliefs, we accept beliefs or ideologies of others, often without much questioning. They all become the raft that we carry around even if we do not need it anymore or perhaps, never needed, in the first place.
The tragedy lies in the fact that most of us are too frightened to give up the beliefs that may no longer be serving us. The fear of the new and the fear of change prevent us from growth just as much as the rigidity of the mind that got stuck in the old paradigm. Without even considering that old beliefs may not be serving us anymore we become trapped and deny ourselves the chance to experience the world from a new angle. The raft is not only heavily weighing on our backs. It obscures our vision and narrows the view. If we want to grow, the beliefs that have served us once must be revised over and over again and discarded if they hinder our evolution.
By Dominique Allmon