Most of you probably know the Buddha’s raft simile — that the dharma is like a raft that you can abandon once you are on the other shore. Recently I decided to check out exactly where the raft story originated.
The search led me to the Alagaddupama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 22), also called the Water Snake Simile Sutta. There’s a water snake parable that comes right before the raft parable, and apparently the organizers of the Sutta-pitaka found the water snake story more compelling and named the sutta after the snake and not the raft. Go figure.
It turns out there is some disagreement as to exactly what the raft parable is trying to tell us, and the water snake story ties into that. In the snake story, a man picks up a water snake by the tail instead of by the proper way, by the head, the way the wildlife experts on the Discovery Channel always do. Of course, the snake gives the man a venomous bite, and he was very sorry and probably died. The moral of this story is that if we “grasp” the dharma improperly, we could fall into all kinds of spiritual dangers.
The raft story immediately follows the snake story. As you probably know, in the raft story a man needs to cross a large body of water to reach the other shore, which is much nicer than the shore he is standing on. There were no bridges or ferries, so he ties together twigs and grass and whatever else he could find to make a raft, which he then uses as a floatation device as he paddles with hands and feet across the water.
At the end of this story, the Buddha asked his monks what the man should do with the raft. And the sensible answer, of course, is that, since a raft serves no purpose on dry land, he would leave the raft on the shore and continue his journey without it. Then the Buddha said,
“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma [dharma] compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.” [Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]
Most of the time, this story is interpreted to mean that once one is enlightened, there is no more need for dharma teachings. But some scholars argue that when one connects the two stories, it appears the raft parable is more about how to “grasp” or understand the teachings. In the second interpretation, the other shore represents correct understanding, and the abandoned raft represents provisional or imperfect understanding.
Which interpretation works for you? I could go either way, frankly.
[This blog post originally was published on About.com Buddhism November 26, 2013.]