Friday, October 9, 2009

Rafts and Raft-Making

The Raft

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.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Riding the Raft of Optimism to Peace

Discovering Optimism in My Buddhist Practice

Vow of Humankind

Calm and composed
Let us awaken to our True Self
Become fully compassionate humans
Make full use of our abilities
According to our respective vocations
Discern suffering
Both individual and social
And its sources
Recognize the right direction
In which history should proceed
Joining hands as kin
Beyond the differences of
Race, nation or class
Let us, with compassion
Vow to bring to realization
Our deep desire
For emancipation
And construct a world in which
All can live truly and fully.

Hosekei Shinichi Hisamatsu, Zen scholar and missionary

A casual look at the first noble truth–that life is suffering–rather than a real understanding of it, can make Buddhism seem pessimistic. In fact, the opposite is true. The teachings of the Buddha are unmitigatingly optimistic. Buddhist teachings view life as a moment-by-moment opportunity to become more and more peaceful and happy until all our suffering is gone. And the teachings view all sentient beings as being on the spiritual path to more peaceful and happy lives. What could be more optimistic?

To understand what makes this view so optimistic we need to understand what the Buddha meant when he described life as suffering. Then we need to understand the meaning of “the Buddha” and of “faith,” and the implications of “emptiness.” Hopefully we will grow to understand these intuitively rather than discursively, since all discursive understanding is speculative, and, while perhaps useful in our early practice, all speculative views are “wrong view.”*

For a discussion of what is meant by the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Suffering, which says that life is suffering, please read the link to the previous blog entry, Parsing This Is Suffering.

Now let’s look at the meaning of the words “the Buddha.” To do that, let’s first consider where our current idea of “the Buddha,” as purely a man, came from.

In seventeenth century Europe, for Westerners, only four religions were identified in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedism, and Paganism. The history of religion is, in a sense, as Donald Lopez explains in The Story of Buddhism, a Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings, a process of replacing Paganism with a larger list of isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and, of course, Buddhism.

To do this, to create an ism such as Buddhism, scholars have to establish such obligatory constituents as a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed doctrines. So Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha. This personification, however, distorts the real meaning of the term, at least as I see it from my practice now.

What I see from my cushion is that “the Buddha” isn’t a man or a woman*, isn’t “a Self, an ego entity, a living being,” in Diamond Sutra terms. “The Buddha” is a mind-state, a mind-state universal to all sentient beings. “All sentient beings” is everything that is and isn’t, and is neither and is both. “The Buddha”, therefore, is the ultimate nature of reality–emptiness, shunyata.

If it were any other way, then the Buddha would be just another dukkha-ed being, another one of us in samsara. But that is not the case. Were that to be the case, there could be no Buddhanature, no enlightenment, and the ending of our dukkha would not be possible. There would, in fact, be no “Buddhism.”

As I understand it, The Buddha is our default setting, our original nature, which, unfortunately, is hidden in the fog of samsara by my current choice to live in dukkhaland. This simple understanding–that it is a choice–made me see what I need to do to clear away the fog so I could live in peace instead: I simply need to make the choices that move me in the direction of the Buddha.

Once I understood this, I saw the raft** that have been readied for me by the Four Noble Truths, the eightfold path, etc., and I realized I could use my hands and feet to paddle to the other shore, leaving all my defilements behind me.

So Buddhism isn’t about suffering; it is about me as an enlightened being, about what I can do everyday to be happier. All of the teachings are aimed at helping me to remove the hindrances and obstacles, the taints and fetters, the attachments that obscure my true nature. 2500 years of teachings, all aimed at helping me find my enlightened nature. That’s optimism.

Now let’s take a moment and look a little more deeply at “the Buddha” as emptiness, shunyata.

We have to be careful when we talk about emptiness not to objectify it. Not to inadvertently make emptiness into a thing with a self, or even a doctrine, for that matter. We must be careful not to confuse emptiness with fullness or unity, which are misunderstandings of the term. It is definitely not that everything is one, it is definitely not about merging with some ultimate or divine.

Emptiness isn’t simply a philosophical insight into the nature of reality. Emptiness is a spiritual practice. In other words, the realization of emptiness is the way we liberate ourselves from delusions; it is the way we liberate ourselves from the defilements that attach us to samsara and bind us to our self-made suffering. Attachment to the mind-state of emptiness is not possible.

My sense of optimism comes from precisely this point. The more deeply I understand and realize emptiness, the less there is to attach to, the less self there is, so to speak, and the more optimistic I feel about the human condition. When I realize that suffering is empty, then I realize how peaceful this very moment is, how bright my future is.

It is, for me, the understanding that everything is empty that is the springboard to my optimism. If everything is empty, then I can change anything in my life. I can, on the most important and fundamental level, change the conditions that bind me to samsara. One moment at a time, one decision at a time, I can move myself away from a lifetime of anxiety, delusion and depression, away from a lifetime of anger and ill-will, towards a life which is ever increasingly peaceful, compassionate, and content.

So, it is shunyata, emptiness, that leads me to see Buddhism as profoundly optimistic, and it is shunyata, emptiness, that gives me faith.

As I say that, of course, I recognize my greediness, my wanting to be optimistic, my liking optimism better than my old pessimism. On a deeper level, I confess, I understand that Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it is utterly realistic. And the transition from seeing things as pessimistic to seeing them as optimistic, to finally seeing them as they really are, by being realistic, is about moving from dukkha to peacefulness, about letting go of the greed. Faith, of course, is what holds me steady in this movement. This movement being from defilement to antidote to equanimity to shunyata. But let’s go back to faith.

“Faith” in Buddhism has a different meaning than it has in Abrahamic religions. Faith in Buddhism is the confidence that arises from knowing that dukkha is end-able. Faith is knowing with absolute certainty from within that, with diligence and consistency, I will become free.

As I became more aware of the Buddha within me, as I practiced more faithfully from a position of emptiness, my awareness of the suffering of other sentient beings, of all other sentient beings and of their need to be saved, of their “deep desire for emancipation,” arose powerfully with me. It led me to understand how in each moment I make a choice, and that that choice is a socially engaged choice.

By following the path and by abandoning the unwholesome and developing the wholesome (right effort in action), I see that in each moment my practice is one of being of benefit to all beings. And that too makes me optimistic, about my future about the future of all sentient beings, and about the future of the environment.

Far from becoming distant and detached, the bodhisattva is right there, out front, engaged in the world, working for the benefit of all sentient beings.

May we all have the “blazing energy" of Vimalakirti as we paddle with joyful and optimistic hearts to the other shore.

*The gender ambiguity of many Buddha statues is a symbolic way of expressing shunyata, emptiness; not, as is often explained, an attempt at gender non-differentiation.

**A blog on rafts and raft-making will be the next posting.

Please feel free to post your thoughts about this blog by clicking below on “comments.”