Simile of the Raft

Nate DeMontigny, from the Precious Metal Blog, wrote an entry today on a pretty famous simile of the Buddha. The Simile of the raft. I thought it was a good entry to discuss (I did add this reply to his blog as well). The Sutta said:

Now on that occasion a monk called Arittha, formerly of the vulture killers, had conceived this pernicious view: “There are things called ‘obstructions’ by the Blessed One. As I understand his teaching, those things are not necessarily obstructive for one who pursues them.”

“Suppose, monks, there is a man journeying on a road and he sees a vast expanse of water of which this shore is perilous and fearful, while the other shore is safe and free from danger. But there is no boat for crossing nor is there a bridge for going over from this side to the other. So the man thinks: ‘This is a vast expanse of water; and this shore is perilous and fearful, but the other shore is safe and free from danger. There is, however, no boat here for crossing, nor a bridge for going over from this side to the other. Suppose I gather reeds, sticks, branches and foliage, and bind them into a raft.’ Now that man collects reeds, sticks, branches and foliage, and binds them into a raft. Carried by that raft, laboring with hands and feet, he safely crosses over to the other shore. Having crossed and arrived at the other shore, he thinks: ‘This raft, indeed, has been very helpful to me. Carried by it, laboring with hands and feet, I got safely across to the other shore. Should I not lift this raft on my head or put it on my shoulders, and go where I like? No. He should wisely set the raft down and be unburdened.

By acting thus, monks, would that man do what should be done with a raft.

This is a very powerful sutta. It reminds us that the Noble Eightfold Path is here to help us, to carry us across the water. As it carries us, we should not in turn be burdened and carry it. How many times have we seen someone become a “rules nazi” and spend their time finding fault in others who transgress their doctrine and law. How many times have you seen “the devotee” who makes his decisions not based on wise reflection but blind interpretation?

Many lay followers of Buddhism cite the Kalamas sutta in response to these questions. They believe that the Buddha taught us to “trust no one.” This is not the case. The Buddha in his talk to the Kalamas, as well here with the simile of the raft, teaches that we must be awake and mindful. We must become wise enough to see  how to grasp the dhamma wisely and use it– not be used by it.

There is another simile, of the snake, that is very useful.

A man who grasps to a snake unwisely finds that the snake has opportunity and cause to attack and injure (or kill) the man. But a man who wisely grasps the snake find that he is safe from harm. This is true of the dhamma as it is with the snake. It takes right skill and right understanding to wisely grasp either.

While the simile of the raft teaches us to “use” the Noble Eightfold Path as a tool and not a master, there is another story of a raft the Buddha uses in a parable. At the end of a long journey being chased by the fetters and poisons of the world, a man uses eight logs (the Eightfold Path) to cross a mighty river. At first he must put great effort to gross the deep strong currents, but as he gets closer to the other side, he realizes that the greater challenges are the subtle dangers underneath the water. He must avoid hidden branches, sandbars, islands, etc. As he gets closer, there are more challenges that tempt him to think “good and close enough” and quit his journey.

It is only when he has completed his journey does he leave the raft behind.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Theravada, Tibet, Work


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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  1. Papañca | Striving with Systems - August 4, 2014

    […] But the voices sound so much like myself, seem so much like my self, that subsuming them within my identity and perceiving the world through their interpretive discourse appear possible only on the other bank of the river. […]

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