On the Raft-simile from Diamond Sutra and Alagaddupama Sutta
The Tathagata often compared his teachings (dharma) with a raft, to be left aside after crossing. It beautifully conveys two points
1) The need to have a raft to cross the ocean of suffering and to awaken to the innate perfection of our nature.
2) The importance of not clinging to the raft as a religious identity, dogma or philosophical affiliation.
Homage to the Buddha who bestowed a raft-like dharma to cross the ocean of Samsara, and also reminded all to let go of the raft so as to walk free in the other shore of Nirvana!
To be perfectly awakened is our inborn ability. Even then, it is too far because it is too close. it is hard to break beyond the shell of habitual tendencies and confusion, and to realize our own unconditioned nature. So, we need the raft of Dharma to go forward. Where does the raft take us? In reality, it does not take us anywhere else, but lets us see our own true face. It just helps us to remove some curtains. As we remove whatever obscures, we come to see our own true nature. So, the raft of Dharma just takes us home. A raft is a raft, and not the shore. So, there comes a point, where if we don’t let go of the raft, even the raft obscures our true nature.
So as to taste what is inborn and natural to us, we need to get rid of four types of clinging – the obvious clinging to various sense pleasures (kāma-upādāna), the clinging to view or belief systems (dṛṣṭi-upādāna), the clinging to discipline or rituals (śīla-upādāna) and most importantly, the clinging to various notions of Self (ātma-vāda-upādāna). The teachings of the Buddha works like a raft for getting rid of these four types of clinging. A raft takes us close to the other shore. But, if we are not ready to step off from the raft, we cannot step on the other shore. Likewise, unless we can let go of even the raft-like dharma, we cannot taste the freedom and awakening that comes from letting go of all kinds of clinging. Here, we shall see how this works.
The Buddha took disciples through views to no-view. He gave a raft of ‘right views’ to cross the ocean of ‘wrong views’. And, he showed how to gradually get rid of even the ‘right views’ to realize the fast expanse of pristine wisdom – the unconditioned expanse of direct knowing that no view can comprehend.
The Buddha used the three turnings of the wheel of his teachings to gradually lead beings to the utter freedom beyond all clinging. We shall also see how the raft example of the Diamond Sutra profoundly summarizes the three teachings into a single line.
Diamond Sutra and Alagaddupama Sutta
The simile of the raft comes at least in two occasions of the Buddha’s teachings – first, in alagaddupama-sutta (The Sutra Expounding the Simile of Water Snake, a teaching from the Pali collection of the first turning teachings), and later, in vajracchedika-prajñā-pāramita-sūtra (The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra called the Diamond-cutter, also known as the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana teaching of the second turning). The Sutra of the Water-snake simile explains the raft-like nature of dharma (teachings and path) in detail. Then, the Diamond Sutra takes it forward to explain that the reliance of any dharma (phenomenon) as a path is only raft-like and indicative. Whatever can spoken and enumerated is only indicative. It is for leading to non-conceptual direct realization which is beyond expressions.
The Tathagata teaches in alagaddupama-sutta (Water-snake Sutra),
kullūpamaṃ vo bhikkhave dhammaṃ desitaṃ ājānantehi dhammāpi vo pahātabbā, pageva adhammā ||
कुल्लूपमं वो भिक्खवे धम्मम् देसितं आजानतेहि धम्मापि वो पहातब्बा पगेव अधम्मा ||
O Bhikkhus, knowing the dhammas taught to be similar to a raft, even dhammas are abandoned, then what need to be said about non-dhammas.
And he teaches in vajracchedika (Diamond Sutra),
tasmād idaṃ saṃndhāya tathāgatena bhāṣitaṃ kolopamaṃ dharmaparyāyaṃ ājānadbhiḥ dharmāḥ eva prahātavyāḥ prāg evādharmāḥ ||
तस्माद् इदं संन्धाय तथागतेन भाषितं कोलोपमं धर्मपर्यायं आजानद्भिः धर्माः एव प्रहातव्याः प्रागेवाधर्माः ||
Therefore, regarding this, Tathagatas say, “By knowing the enumeration of dharmas to be similar to a raft, even dharmas are to be abandoned, then what needs to be said about non-dharmas!”
The way of freedom is when you put all mental fabrications to rest and see everything in a clear panoramic expanse. For this, one needs to relinquish not only the clinging to various sense pleasures, but more importantly the other three types listed above. We shall see how those three types of clinging are eliminated gradually through the raft-like dharma.
The Raft-like View
The Tathagata teaches various views for the purpose of dissolving the disciples’ clinging to various belief systems. And, by the simile of raft, the Tathagata forewarns that the view that the Tathagata teaches needs to be used to get rid of the clinging to various beliefs, and not for the purpose of making another dogmatic system out of his teachings. Belief systems obstruct clear seeing. Having pacified the clinging to belief systems through the raft-like views, the disciple opens up to the panoramic vision of direct seeing. No belief system, however correct it may be, can be the same as direct realization without the obstruction of views.
The Buddha saw that a ‘true view’ of ‘no-view’ is possible only when one has broken the shell of habitual perceptions and seen a glimpse of that no-view. Otherwise, even if one wishes to maintain no-view, it only becomes another false ‘view’ of ‘no-view’. This is because, by not exerting oneself to break the current view of habitual perceptions, one just stays there in the name of no-view.
In other words, there are two kinds of ‘no-view’. First, there is the no-view of the fools and the lazy, who just stays in delusion without analyzing the causes for their miseries and without correcting their habits. Second, there is the no-view of the wise who has seen beyond obstructions, and thus not getting attached to views. The Buddha taught to cultivate the latter.
The three turnings of the wheel of Dharma is summarized in this single statement. “By knowing the enumeration of dharmas to be similar to a raft” is the first turning. “even dharmas are to be abandoned” is the second turning. “then what needs to be said about non-dharmas!” is the third turning
For this,, the Buddha used skillful methods. As a Supreme Teacher, he takes disciples through views to no-view. He gave a raft of ‘right views’ to cross the ocean of ‘wrong views’. The right views are right only so far as they lead one away from fetters, to greater freedom, and diminishing of sorrow, pain, despair and foul states of mind. The wrong views are wrong so far as they lead one into more fetters, to further sorrow, pain, despair and foul states of mind. The raft of coarse ‘right view’ is abandoned upon seeing a finer ‘right view’. The raft of all right views also has to be abandoned as one reaches the shore of clear direct insight of the no-view. Otherwise, the right view becomes a wrong view so far as it obstructs clear seeing. It casts a veil of conceptuality.
There is another aspect of the raft example that alagaddupama-sutta points to. The raft in this simile is made up of grass, twigs, branches and leaves that the person finds at the shore, and not a boat made up of exquisite substances to be obtained elsewhere. In other words, the raft of view is made up of dharmas (phenomena) that one can see and have access to, and not made up of speculations about what may be obtained elsewhere. For example, the Buddha shows us to work with appearances, feelings, conceptions, mental formations and cognitions that we can directly know, instead of making metaphysical speculation about some unseen thing. The raft of Dharma that the Buddha shows to a disciple always uses only what is accessible to that disciple.
The Raft-like Path
Likewise, the Tathagata taught that the clinging to morality and various rituals do not lead to freedom. Yet, the Tathagata taught the way of virtuous life.
In Śatasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Hundred Thousand Verses), the Tathagata teaches,
śīlapāramitā paripūrayitavyāpattyanāpattyanadhyāpattitām upādāya
शीलपारमिता परिपूरयितव्यापत्त्यनापत्त्यनध्यापत्तिताम् उपादाय ||
He fulfills the perfection of self-discipline through the absence of the fault of both fault and faultlessness.
Clinging to virtue is also a clinging, and a cause for ego and pride. Further, clinging to virtue can also be a cause for giving rise to destructive emotions such as anger upon seeing others who do not possess similar virtues. Narrow views of virtue and non-virtue as absolute ethical principle create dualistic notions with regard to the world and give rise of mental fermentation.
However there is caveat here. Some people who see this fault of clinging to virtue, wrongly teach to abandon the discrimination of virtue and non-virtue. This is dangerous. The Buddha shows this with the example of a water-snake in alagaddupama-sutta. An unskilled person wants to catch a water-snake. He goes and catches it by its coil or tail. Then, the snake turns back and bites him on his hand. An unskilled way of grasping the teaching of non-clinging to the notions of virtue and non-virtue is also like that. If an unskilled person were to abandon the distinction of virtue and non-virtue, he only falls prey to the habits of negativity, suffering and perversion. The habits accrued due to delusion takes over.
A ‘true view’ of ‘no-view’ is possible only when one has broken the shell of habitual perceptions and seen a glimpse of that no-view. Otherwise, even if one wishes to maintain no-view, it only becomes another false ‘view’ of ‘no-view’. This is because, by not exerting oneself to break the current view of habitual perceptions, one just stays there in the name of no-view.
The Buddha further explains in Water-snake Sutra that a skilled person would pin down the snake firmly with a forked stick and then grasp it firmly by its neck. Likewise, though eventually all types of clinging have to be abandoned, in the beginning one needs to grasp firmly on the right dharma (virtuous path) as the raft of virtues. Through that, there is a lessening of mental fermentations, sorrows, suffering and foul states of mind. Then, there is clarity and wisdom. With wisdom, one is able to spontaneously do the right actions for the benefit of all. At that time, one should not continue to cling on to the raft of concepts regarding virtues, as that prevents clear seeing. And, even while rowing the raft of virtues, one needs to remain mindful that it is also to be left aside later. With that thought, one avoids giving into absolutist notions of virtues. In that way, one also avoids mental agitations with regard to disputes on virtues.
Even while rowing the raft of virtues, one can remain mindful that the clinging to virtues is also to be left aside at some point. With that thought, one avoids giving into absolutist notions of virtues. In that way, one also avoids mental agitations with regard to disputes on virtues.
Thus, there are two possibilities of not clinging to virtue and non-virtue. The first, that of the unskilled person, is to do actions without the discrimination of the virtues and non-virtues. Such a person wanders aimlessly in the fetters of one’s own making – the Samsara. The other is to develop wisdom and spontaneously perfect the great virtue that is free from clinging to virtue and non-virtue. The Tathagata, the Supreme Teacher who skillfully went beyond the Great Bliss of Awakening, teaches the latter as the Way. While one is not ready yet to move on to non-clinging, the Buddha gives rafts of virtuous conduct to cling firmly on to. Further, the teachings on virtuous conduct are not for judging others, but only for use as a raft to take oneself forward.
The Rafts to ‘Reality beyond Clinging’
The Skillful Supreme Teacher, the One Who has Gone Beyond, the Destroyer of Afflictions, Samyak Sambuddha, gradually leads his disciples to the reality ‘as it is’, free from the clinging on various notions of Self (ātma-vāda-upādāna). He accomplishes this as he unravels the reality of awakening through the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma.
A profound summary of how the three turnings achieve this can be found in the raft simile of Diamond Sutra.
Therefore, regarding this, Tathagatas say, “By knowing the enumeration of dharmas to be similar to a raft, even dharmas are to be abandoned, then what needs to be said about non-dharmas!”
The word dharma, in this context needs to be read as referring to all objects of knowledge or phenomena. Particularly, this is in relation to the objects of knowledge that the Buddha taught as a way to go beyond self-clinging.
As we shall see, the three parts of the above verse can be seen to correspond to the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma:
“By knowing the enumeration of dharmas to be similar to a raft” – The first turning
“even dharmas are to be abandoned” – The second turning
“then what needs to be said about non-dharmas!” – The third turning
The Raft of the First Turning
“By knowing the enumeration of dharmas to be similar to a raft”
In the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Buddha enumerated various finer and momentarily changing objects of knowledge as a way to analyze and get rid of the clinging to a notion of Self as an identity of the person. For example he taught that all experiences of a person fall into the five heaps (skandha) – form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), designations or conceptions (saṃjñā), mental formations (saṃskāra) and cognitions or consciousness (vijñāna). He also taught that the constituents of experiences are dharmas such as the continuum of mind (citta), mental events (caitta or cetasika), various constituents making up forms (rūpa), etc.
There are two possibilities of not clinging to virtue and non-virtue. The first, that of the unskilled person, is to do actions without the discrimination of the virtue and non-virtue and wander aimlessly in the fetters of one’s own making. The other is to develop wisdom and spontaneously perfect the great virtue that is free from clinging to virtue and non-virtue. The Tathagata, teaches the latter as the Way. He gives rafts of virtuous conduct to cling firmly on to before one is ready to move on to non-clinging.
The Buddha found that an ordinary person, unskilled in the path, imagines a Self in relation with such experiences. For example, one may confuse a form (body) as the Self, the Self possessing the form, Self existing in the form, or the form existing in the Self. Likewise, one may confusedly cling on to a notion of Self in relation to feelings, conceptions, and so on.
The Buddha instructed disciples to appropriately observe and analyze these. There is no separate Self to be found in any of these five heaps individually or collectively. There is also no Self outside these five heaps, because the five heaps arise and vanish without being in the control of any other Self. A person’s name is just given to this transitory collection that flows like a river, and not to one particular entity within that. Meditating in this way, a skilled person following the instructions of the Buddha avoids clinging to forms, feelings, conceptions, mental formations and cognitions as ‘mine’, ‘my self’, ‘in me’, ‘around me’, etc. Thus, the practitioner walks to freedom from clinging, and to the end of suffering.
Though the clinging to the notions of a permanent Self is cut by observing constituent dharmas, there is a caveat here. One may overlook the point that the grasping on these constituent dharmas is only a raft to cross beyond the clinging to a notion of a Self. What if one holds on to these dharmas as if they were absolute and fundamental building blocks of oneself and the world? In a subtle way, this becomes another notion of a Self that comes to existence momentarily. Thus, having abandoned the clinging to the notion of a permanent Self, one clings to the notion of a Self as transitory collection. This also obstructs the clear expanse of wisdom.
The Buddha cautioned about this in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma itself. In Phena Pinḍūpama Sutta (Sutra of a Lump of Foam) he teaches,
pheṇapiṇḍūpamaṃ rūpaṃ vedanā bubbuḷupamā
maricikupamā saññā saṃkhārā kadalūpamā,
māyūpamañca viññāṇaṃ dīpitādiccabandhunā.
yathā yathānaṃ nijjhāyati yoniso upaparikkhati,
rittakaṃ tucchakaṃ hoti yo naṃ passati yoniso
फेणपिण्डूपमं रूपं वेदना बुब्बुळुपमा
मरिचिकुपमा सञ्ञा संखारा कदलूपमा
मायूपमञ्च विञ्ञाणं दीपितादिच्चबन्धुना
यथा यथानं निज्झायति योनिसो उपपरिक्खति
रित्तकं तुच्छकं होति यो नं पस्सति योनिसो
Form is like a lump of foam; feeling is like a bubble; conception (samjna) is like a mirage; formations are like a banana tree; consciousness is like an illusion (māya). So, showed the kinsman of the Sun. In whichever way they are reflected upon, investigated appropriately, it is seen to be without essence (rittakaṃ) and insubstantial (tucchakaṃ) to those who see appropriately.
This is to be expounded in detail in the second turning.
The Raft of the Second Turning
“even dharmas are to be abandoned”
Not only the clinging to phenomena, even the clinging to the perception of their absence needs to be abandoned. In other words, emptiness is also empty, and any concept of emptiness is also a raft to be left aside at some point
Further, to counter the clinging to dharmas as real, the Buddha taught the view of emptiness in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma (in the Wisdom Perfection Sutras). He taught that the enumeration of these five heaps as well as the dharmas that he enumerated for various purposes are only enumerations or approximations (paryāya) and not truly existing entities in themselves. He showed that they are not only without essence and insubstantial, but also empty (śūnya) of inherent existence. They do not appear from their own side, but arises as illusion-like or dream-like experiences. They are spoken of as dharmas only as approximations to achieve a purpose. Upon appropriate observation and analysis, it becomes evident that there is nothing whatsoever in dharmas to cling on to. He instructed disciples to closely and appropriately observe all dharmas to realize their emptiness.
Now, there is another caveat. Some people wrongly approach this profound teaching of selflessness and emptiness as just another dogma. Such a person clings on to emptiness as a philosophical view, only to deconstruct the views of others, and forgets to directly realize emptiness in seeing the illusion-like nature of all phenomena. Then the teaching does not serve its purpose. One ends up holding on to a nihilistic view of emptiness as in some modern schools of philosophical deconstruction. Further, the clinging to absence can also be cause for a subtle clinging to a notion of Self as the absence. (for example, when someone says, “I am non-existent” with a clear sense of ‘I’ and equating with some kind of a mystical vacuity, it is just another way of clinging to a notion of Self.)
In this regard, the Buddha cautioned in Diamond Sutra,
saced adharmasaṃjñā pravarteta sa eva teṣām ātmagrāho bhavet | satvagrāho jīvagrāhaḥ pudgalagrāha iti |
सचेद् अधर्मसंज्ञा प्रवर्तेत स एव तेषां आत्मग्राहो भवेत् | सत्वग्राहो जीवग्राहः पुद्गलग्राह इति |
Even if the conception of a non-dharma occurs, that becomes grasping on a Self, grasping as a sentient being, grasping on a soul, grasping on a person.
To overcome this, the Buddha taught these lines in Diamond Sutra,
Even dharmas (phenomena) are to be abandoned, then what needs to be said about non-dharmas (non-phenomena)!
So, not only the clinging to phenomena, even the clinging to the perception of their absence needs to be abandoned. In other words, emptiness is also empty, and any concept of emptiness is also a raft to be left aside at some point.
There are two right ways to practice this. The first way is that of instantaneous non-abiding. That is, to practice ‘non-abiding’ right from the beginning. For that, having gained certainty in the view through deliberation, one lets go of all conceptual proliferations such as ‘existent’, ‘non-existent’, ‘both’ and ‘neither’ at one shot. As one rests in that view, the immediacy of awareness arises naturally as the pristine wisdom that sees reality as it is, clearly and non-conceptually. All tendencies to perceive and cling on to phenomena are cut in one go. This is not easy for most practitioners.
Then, there is a gradual way. In this way, one trains with the concept of emptiness as an antidote to the clinging on phenomena. One gradually trains to see all experiences as empty and illusion-like. With that, the clinging on phenomena as existent is eliminated. Then one contemplates on the appearance aspect as an antidote to the clinging on absence. In this way, the clinging on the phenomena as non-existent is eliminated. It is like taking a raft till some point and changing over to another later. Gradually, one lets go of all conceptual approximations and directly realizes the reality as it is.
The Raft of the Third Turning
“then what needs to be said about non-dharmas!”
The main purpose of the first turning is to take us beyond the clinging to the notion of a Self. This is done by relying on constituent dharmas. At the same time, the first turning itself indicates that the dharmas are also insubstantial and without essence. That is a precursor for the second turning. The main purpose of the second turning is to take us beyond clinging to dharmas. This is done by relying on their interdependent arising and emptiness of inherent existence (svabhāva-śūnyatā). At the same time, the second turning itself (e.g., Diamond Sutra) indicates that the conception of absence of existence is also merely a concept and not the reality as it is. This is a precursor for the third turning.
The immediacy of awareness seeing reality as it is, clearly and non-conceptually, is itself the Buddha.
The third turning of the wheel of Dharma goes further to expound Buddha nature as an antidote to the clinging to the absence. Having taken the disciples skillfully through the first two turnings of the wheel of Dharma, and having cleansed all tendencies to grasp on phenomena as existent, non-existent, Self, not-Self, etc., the Buddha expounded the third turning. During the third turning, the Buddha shows that when one leaves everything as it is, free from clinging and mental fabrications, the clear and luminous nature of mind of a sentient being manifests as the Buddha. In this way, the nature of mind of the sentient beings is no different from the nature of the Buddhas. Though, the minds of sentient beings and the Buddhas are empty of inherent existence (svabhāva-śūnyatā), they are at the same time in the nature of clear luminous awareness.
There is nothing to be cultivated or constructed newly for a sentient being to be a Buddha. All that is required is to let go of all types of clinging, completely and utterly, by gradually abandoning all rafts. The result of that elimination spontaneously manifests as the Buddha. The immediacy of awareness seeing reality ‘as it is’ – clearly and non-conceptually – is itself the Buddha.
Such an immediacy of non-conceptual direct seeing is introduced by the Buddha beyond all dogmas by using skillful rafts that gradually take us beyond all conceptual clinging. Praising the Buddha who gave such raft-like concepts to reach the non-conceptual direct wisdom, Acharya Nagarjuna wrote the following verse:
anirodhaṃ anutpādaṃ anucchedaṃ aśāśvataṃ
anekārthaṃ anānārthaṃ anāgamaṃ anirgamaṃ
yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaṃ prapañcopaśamaṃ śivaṃ
deśayāmāsa saṃbuddhastaṃ vande vadatāṃ varaṃ
अनिरोधं अनुत्पादं अनुच्छेदं अशाश्वतं
अनेकार्थं अनानार्थं अनागमं अनिर्गमं
यः प्रतीत्यसमुत्पादं प्रपञ्चोपशमं शिवं
देशयामास संबुद्धस्तं वन्दे वदतां वरं ||
Not ceasing, not born, not annihilated not permanent,
Not one, not many, not coming, not going,
This dependent arising, pacified of all conceptual proliferations is auspicious.
I bow to the Perfect Buddha, the Supreme Speaker, of unparalleled instructions!
May all beings accomplish that perfect awakening by carefully taking the rafts to freedom, and letting go of the rafts without any dogmatic clinging! May all be auspicious!