Founding your religion on a doctrine that you say should be abandoned was revolutionary 2500 years ago. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what the Buddha did in the simile of the raft.
Students of Buddhism frequently joke about the raft. While a light-hearted approach can be of value in seeing its larger meaning and its place in our lives, the raft has a serious role to play in our practice. But just what is this raft? How should we use it? How is it constructed? How many do we need? And from where, in the experience of the practice, does the raft come from?
When we first encounter the raft, in the Pali Canon, MN 22 and SN 35, for instance, as well as in the Diamond Sutra, Chapter 6, it is a metaphor for our progression from samsara to nirvana. We know immediately, from its position in the sutras, and later, from our direct experience of its efficacy, that the raft is extremely beneficial to the practice. Having carried us on the essential first leg of our journey, when we go from contemplative examination to a full acceptance of the teaching, the raft becomes for us an engine for our enthusiasm, the crucible of our love for the practice.
Each of us will need many rafts, specific to our karma, to cross from this to the other shore. Even if, as we are told, we are “already enlightened,” “already Buddhas,” and even if we have had a glimpse, or a so-called “enlightenment experience,” we are not enlightened beings. To become that, we will need to become dedicated and diligent raft makers.
How do we construct a raft? The sutras tell us to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, and to bind them together to make a raft. Then, we are told, we must use the raft, along with the power of our own hands and feet, to carry us safely to the other shore. The grass, twigs, branches and leaves stand for the teachings. Our paddling hands and feet represent diligent energy and exertion.
Early in my practice, in Raft-Making 101 when I made my first raft, it had four sides, corresponding to the four noble truths. Back then I saw the raft as imploding when I stepped out of it onto the other shore. Later, I construed the eight aspects of the noble path as structural elements of a more complicated raft. This raft, I imagined, I would send back toward samsara when I stepped out of it.
After that, I developed a sort of raft-making-methodology as I continued to study and practice. Sometimes I used the same raft over and over again as I worked through bad habits. Sometimes I made new rafts. Some, my “antidote rafts,” were fashioned in response to my defilements. I stayed on the antidote raft until it was replaced by another raft, the “equanimity raft.” Eventually, the equanimity raft would be replaced by an enlightened mind-state. This transformative teaching, going from defilement to antidote to equanimity to tranquility, along with the steady presence of another raft, a "right effort" raft, has been prominent in my spiritual growth.
Now, I have several other key rafts in my boat house, including the faith raft, the dana raft, the dukkha raft, and the right speech raft, each of which is described in previous blog.
By the time I reached Raft-Making 201, I had created lots of rafts. After I made them, I noticed, the rafts were always there, available to me whenever I needed them. It was as if I had a ninth consciousness, a “boathouse consciousness,” which gave me the ability to paddle myself to increasing purity in body, speech and mind. I realized then that the rafts were my tools for self-purification.
I see now that I have developed a raft making habit. I build new rafts all the time to move me through the agitated waters of my defilements. These days, when irritation, for example, arises, I can jump onto the dana raft or the patience raft (the first and third paramitas) and float, if not all the way to the other shore, at least to a place of less dukkha, a purer place. I think of these rafts as practice vehicles which can weaken or lessen and eventually eliminate my dukkha.
There is one raft in my boathouse consciousness that I use more and more often. This is a high horsepower raft, my capital “D” Dharma raft, which can stop dukkha dead in its tracks and carry me straight to my own true, enlightened nature. I call this my “wholesome mind-states” raft. To make it, I used Asanga’s eleven beneficial mind-states: trust, diligence, humility, generosity, patience, wisdom, tranquility, attentiveness, equanimity, not harming and regret, plus a handful of twigs and leaves I gathered myself: compassion, dependability, honesty, lovingkindness and sympathetic joy, amongst others.
We can use our rafts to set us free from craving and clinging, to separate us from beginningless suffering, to carry us across the sea of our afflictions. But, and here is the revolutionary teaching, once we arrive on the other shore we must step out of the raft and released it. We must let the Dharma itself go. Until we do that, we are not truly there, on the other shore. There is another way of interpreting the raft simile, from the standpoint of the Diamond Sutra rather than the Pali canon. In the Diamond Sutra, we use the raft to get to the water’s edge, and then we abandon it to cross over.
As always in the practice, we need to be alert to the increasing treachery of the ego, whose desperate disguises multiply as we progress and are increasingly subtle and hard to detect. If the raft is used incorrectly, the raft itself, which was contrived to bring us to the other shore, will instead, tether us to this.
We need to be careful not to parade around samsara holding a raft aloft, perching it on our heads for all to see. This boastful display, this wrong view of the teaching, is the conceit, the sense of superiority, the arrogance that entrenches us on this shore. And we must be careful not to use the raft to spin speculative views that then need to be protected and defended, leading to a whole host of new defilements, like self-righteousness and aggression, which more deeply mire us in wrong view.
If the raft has become so precious to––after all that time and energy we spent building it––that we drag it onto the shore with us, to keep it “just in case,” we will find that the raft hasn’t taken us anywhere and that we even more deeply sunk in the coastal mud of samsara than before.
Some people mistake the raft for liberation. Having no interest in traversing the water, they like to carry the raft along this shore. Instead of being purified by the eight aspects of the path, for example, they recite them with pride and conceit. They don’t know that the raft, the teachings. are not the goal of the practice but the practice itself.
Some people think that if they simply learn the teaching they will become enlightened. If that were the case, I would quickly ask someone to throw me their “pre-owned” raft and be done with it! But, needless to say, knowing and reciting the eightfold path does not mean one has “realized” the path.
Some people use rafts contentiously, as a way for the mind to avoid devoting itself to the actual practice of the dharma. After all, it’s easier to talk about it than do it. Under the guise of advocating for the dharma, they are inadvertently attaching more firmly to their sense of Self, to the I-Me-My-Mine discussed in the previous blog.
The sole purpose of the raft is to break our bonds of attachment. If we use our rafts for any other purpose, if we praise ourselves for building them, if we treasure them, if we cling to them, or, if we prefer talking about them to using them, our longed for vehicles for liberation will instead tether us to this, the suffering shore.
Exercise: In your practice now, this month, this week, this day, this moment, which raft(s) are you using. Are you holding yourself in a state of awareness so thatyou can see which raft(s) is needed to purify afflictions of body, speech and mind when they arise? Are you a relentless paddler and raft-maker?
Do you need to know more about rafts and raft-making to steady and hasten you along the Path?
Please feel free to post your thoughts about rafts and raft-making by clicking comment below, or email if you have a question.