Notes on the Other Shore

A little more on the raft parable — I occasionally bump into someone saying the raft parable tells us we can ignore dharma teachings as we like, because we’re supposed to ditch them, anyway. This is an un-serious interpretation, seems to me.

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However, in his comments on this parable, Thanissaro Bhikkhu said something that I don’t believe is true —

“Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text — the Diamond Sutra — interprets the raft simile as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river.”

Let’s look at this —

Mention of the raft parable is in the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra. This is from Red Pine’s translation:

“…if these fearless bodhisattvas created a perception of a dharma, they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma,  they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.

“And why not? Because, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas do not cling to a dharma, much less to no dharma.  This is the meaning behind the Tathagata’s saying, ‘A dharma teaching is like a raft. If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.'”

From this, I can see how the Bikkhu came to his interpretation. But one must always be careful with the Diamond. It’s a subtle text, and its deeper meaning isn’t found in a literal reading, I don’t think. My stab at this is that reaching the other shore requires dropping away ideas about dharma. But that’s not the same thing as dropping dharma.

In his book on the Diamond Sutra, Red Pine quotes a number of distinguished Mahayana sages who interpret this passage in the conventional way — that the “raft” of the Buddha’s teaching can abandoned on the other shore. I think it’ s safe to say that the author of the Diamond expected his readers to be familiar with the original raft simile and how it is traditionally interpreted.

Something else to remember about the Diamond is that the translations of it are all over the map. The oldest versions we have are in an antique form of Chinese that, I am told, is just about untranslatable. And the early Chinese translators, who may or may  not have been working from a now-lost Sanskrit original, don’t agree with each other.

For example, one of the early translators was an Indian monk named Paramartha (499-569 CE). Red Pine says that in Paramartha’s version, the raft becomes a metaphor for the sutras, not the dharma. That puts a sightly different spin on the text.

As usual, Thich Nhat Hanh finds a clear way to explain things.

“The Buddha is saying that the truth he has realized is not what we generally think it is. It lies in the middle way, which is beyond the idea of graspable and the idea of deceptive. We should understand this in light of the teaching of the raft given earlier. The raft is to help us cross over to the other shore. It is a wonderful, even necessary instrument. But we should use the raft in an intelligent way. We should not cling to it or carry it on our back when we are done with it. The teaching is to help us, not to be possessed by us. It is not meant to deceive us, but we may be deceived by it because of our own way of clinging to it.” [from The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion]

[This post originally was posted on Buddhism on November 27, 2013]

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