Noah Rasheta: Secular Buddhism #9

The Parable of the Raft

In the Parable of the Raft, there is a person who comes to a large body of water and he's trying to get to the other side. There's no way to do it, at least safely, so he starts to assemble all of the components that he needs to build a raft. Once it's put together he relies on this raft to keep himself afloat and he makes his way across the body of water to reach the other side.

Then, once he gets there, is he supposed to leave the raft or is he supposed to drag it along with him or carry it on his back? What the Buddha taught is that he should leave it and he explained that the Dharma, or the teachings, are like this raft. They can be useful for crossing over but not useful if you hold onto them. The question is: as you're studying the teachings in Buddhism and you become awakened to the meaning of them, are you supposed to continue hanging on to them? Or do you let go?

Some argue that the correct interpretation of the story is that, as you become awakened or enlightened, you should let go of Buddhism entirely but others argue that it has more to do with the way that you grasp or cling to these. What you're supposed to do is let go of clinging and the raft isn't necessarily the teachings. My intention isn't to explain these arguments; I like the parable for other reasons. I like the concept of something at one point being really meaningful in your life – this can be a relationship or a specific belief system, a job, something that was very meaningful to you and into which you put a lot of time and effort – then feeling no longer relevant or important.

Well, it may be important, but it's no longer necessary. Think of the time and effort that went into making a relationship with someone important and meaningful and then think of that relationship ending. You've reached the shore, and it's no longer necessary to continue to carry aspects of that relationship. It's unnecessary and it's actually hindering your progress at this point. But I think it's also detrimental to look back on that specific phase of your life and think that it was a waste of time.

When you're on the raft, it's a matter of life and death. That's how meaningful that raft is to you but, once you reach the other side, it's no longer necessary. It would be silly to look back on that phase and say, "Man, I wish I had never wasted my time building that raft. That was stupid". Because at one point the raft meant everything.

I wanted to address this concept from the perspective of how, in our journey, our faith journey, or our relationship journey, we come across bodies of water and that, at that time, these rafts are very important. They mean everything. It's different things, right? It can be your beliefs or your convictions or, if you're thinking about relationships, it can be a specific person. If you were in a career, it could be the time and energy you spent studying for the Bar exam. In life, we're constantly building rafts. Wherever you are right now, you're probably either building a raft or you're on it and you're paddling. And the first mistake that we make, is that, when we get there, we just put the raft on our back and keep on going; we can't or won't let go. The second is feeling angry at all the time and energy we feel was wasted on the raft. This is another way of not letting go. You feel, "Well that was a waste; that raft wasn't necessary". But you forget that, at the time, wherever we were mentally or emotionally, it was necessary. The raft was everything. It was a matter of life and death.

So through this lens the Parable of the Raft, for me, is the story of understanding what it means to let go. There's another story that helps illustrate this and it's the Zen story of the two monks and a woman. There are two monks, a senior monk and a junior monk, and they're travelling together and at some point in their travels they come to a river that has a strong current. The monks are getting ready to cross and at that point one of them sees a young and beautiful woman who's also trying to cross. She asks them for help and the two monks kind of glance at each other, because they realise they have taken vows not to touch a woman. The older monk, the senior monk, doesn't say anything. He just picks up the woman, carries her across the river and gently places her on the other side. Then they continue their journey.

The younger monk can't believe what has happened. At some point he finally speaks up and he says, "Hey, I don't get it. We've taken vows to not touch a woman and how are you able to just pick her up and carry her on your shoulders and put her on the other side? You've broken your vow." The older monk looks at him and he says, "I put the woman down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?"

This story carries a simple, beautiful message about how we often carry something and hold on to it and how it's there and it's festering and it's on our mind because we are not capable of letting go. The ethics of the vows they have taken don't matter. The point of the story, the moral of that story, is that, when you do something, you do something and then when you're done you let it go. Applying this to the Parable of the Raft, it's very similar. At the time, it makes sense to have a raft or build a raft or be on a raft, and the raft can mean everything. Then, at the moment that the raft no longer means anything to us, or it's no longer necessary, you have two options. You can carry it with you, or you can let it go. I think that letting go also presents us with two options. Once you've let it go, you either let it go completely or you let it go but let it fester.

I hope that you can spend some time looking at your own life and thinking, "What are the rafts that I've built? What are the bodies of water that I needed to cross? How did I build that raft? What was that raft to me?" Then, "In what ways am I still carrying the raft with me?" If you have let it go, or at least you think you've let it go, in what way are you still carrying it with you? I know that I can think of several instances where things were that important to me, and I thought that I had let them go. But they had been festering and at some point you kind of unleash the question, "Why? I don't get it. You were supposed to …" It's like you're talking to that senior monk. It's not right or wrong. I'm not saying that you're wrong for doing this; it's just not wise. It's not wise to be carrying a raft when you don't need it.

Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to this episode here.