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“So too, monks, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
~ The Buddha
SN 12:65


Dhamma Articles

Similes of the Raft and the Snake-catcher

Bhante Gunaratana

What is the use of a raft? It is used for crossing over a vast expanse of water which is difficult otherwise to cross over. The close scrutiny of the application of this simile used by the Buddha in Snake-simile (Alagaddupama) Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya elucidates how skillfully he chose it to illustrate precisely what people, who don’t fully comprehend the meaning of religions, have been doing throughout the history of religion. In this simile the Buddha pointed out that if a man who, after crossing over the vast expanse of water by a raft, were to determine to carry the raft over his shoulders, thinking by doing so he would show his gratitude to the raft for helping him to save his life, he would be foolish.

The simile of snake-catcher used by the Buddha in the aforementioned Sutta is also equally indispensable in illustrating the danger of the wrong grasp of a religion. If a man who does not know how to catch a poisonous snake were to hold the snake either by his body or by his tail he may get bitten by the snake and consequently suffer severe injury or death. The message in these two similes once realized fully would facilitate better understanding of the tension stems from the increase of violence and crime in the name of religion in modern society.

The wrong grasp of religion can lead man to justify his greed, hatred and foolishness. His distorted views, distorted perception and distorted consciousness force him to grasp a religion wrongly and undermine its very foundation, causing more pain and suffering—as does the wrong grasp of the snake.

A wrong grasp of religion can always be a passageway to defeat the very purpose of religion and encourage people to commit atrocities in the name of one’s faith. People sometimes not only cling to religions but naively obey any man or woman who, being a persuasive speaker, may promote and justify violence and unethical practices in the name of religion. By supporting such a person with their time, skill or wealth, they only increase his or her greed and hatred and ignorance. Blinded by religious beliefs they may even try over-zealously to protect their religions not only by inculcating hatred and fear in many of their gullible followers’ minds, but also by advocating even murder in the name of their beliefs.

If a man simply clings to the raft after using it to cross over the ocean, instead of leaving it on the shore for someone else to use it, he will not do the wise thing either. He rather makes the raft a heavy burden on his shoulder. The raft is made out of reeds, sticks, branches and foliage. They are bound by a rope or bark of a tree. Similarly this body is made up of form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness which are bound together by ignorance and desire to make body-mind complexity. Just as this man clings to the raft made up of reeds, sticks, branches and foliage we may cling to the body and mind made up of form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness bound by craving and ignorance. The man clinging to the raft which helped him to cross over the vast expanse of water may continue to carry the burden of the very same raft. Similarly by clinging to our mind-body complexity and our religious beliefs we continue to carry their burden. He remains bound to his raft and we to the mind-body. He is on the shore and we are in Samsara. This body and mind, together with the feelings, perception and mental formations, exist not for clinging but only for gaining knowledge and insight necessary for attaining liberation from Samsara. “Monks,” said the Buddha, “you should let go even (good) teaching, how much more false ones”. Good teaching benefits us only if we use it, just like the raft. No teaching, however good it is, can help us if we simply cling to it. Clinging even to good teaching can cause pain and suffering. Just imagine how much more painful it could be when we cling to bad things! The man who uses a raft to cross over the body of water has to be wise. Similarly one who uses this body-mind complexity to cross over the ocean of Samsara has to be wise. Therefore he will not cling to this body-mind complexity at all. If he does he cannot attain enlightenment.

Clinging to beliefs without practice can also easily make people religious fanatics who seek refuge in violence to resolve problems, for they are totally ignorant of what their religion teaches them. People who are unaware of the message of their religion may live in constant fear of criticism of their religion and wish to protect it by destroying people who have different beliefs. The fear of criticism arises in the mind ill-directed by the ambivalent belief system which cannot vouch for security and actuality. The Buddha said: “Your ill-directed mind can do you more harm than all your enemies in the world together can do”. Similarly, he said: “A well directed mind can do you more good than all your parents, friends and relatives together can do for you”. The real conqueror is not the one who conquers thousands upon thousands of people in a battle field but one who conquers himself.

Although Buddha never even implied causing harm to anybody, there are some even among the Buddhists who believe that they should protect their country, killing as many as they think necessary in order to protect Buddhism, the religion of peace, harmony, compassion and loving-kindness. Killing or even the thought of killing any living being, let alone human beings, is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the most compassionate and loving Buddha, who said: “He is called virtuous and wise who, wishing success, does not commit crimes for the sake of oneself, for the sake of one’s own children, for the sake of others, for the sake of wealth, or even for the sake of the country” Buddha’s teaching stands above all notions of countries, cultures, languages, ethnic affiliations and everything else, for he taught only the truth which is permanent, eternal and bound by nothing in the world.

When you embark the raft you should check it very carefully to verify whether it is secure and properly put together, lest you may drown by using a defective raft. Similarly you should very carefully learn and critically examine any religion before accepting or rejecting it. Patient listening to someone criticizing the Buddha, Dhamma or the community of Sangha, is highly recommended in the teaching of the Buddha.

“If for that others revile, abuse, scold and insult the Perfect One (Buddha), on that account, O monks, the Perfect One will not feel annoyance, nor dejection, nor displeasure in His heart. And if for that others respect, revere, honor and venerate the Perfect One, on that account the Perfect One will not feel delight, nor joy, nor elation in His heart. If for that other respect, revere, honor and venerate the Perfect One, He will think: ‘It is towards this (mind-body aggregate) which was formerly fully comprehended, that they perform such acts.

Therefore, O monks, if you, too, are reviled, abused, scolded and insulted by others, you should on that account not entertain annoyance, nor dejection, nor displeasure in your hearts. And if others respect, revere, honor and venerate you, on that account you should not entertain delight nor joy nor elation in your hearts. If others respect, revere, honor and venerate you, you should think: ‘It is towards this (mind-body aggregate) which was formerly comprehended, that they perform such acts’”.

Analytical investigation and critical knowledge of Dhamma are essential factors of enlightenment in Buddhism. For if you know for sure that what you practice is true you should not be alarmed by criticism. You rather should be glad to welcome critical investigation of it so you can look at what you practice from different perspective. If you know gold as gold, for instance, you would without any hesitation let any well trained goldsmith test it by cutting, burning, rubbing and hammering it, for you are certain that he will not determine your gold to be copper. Only if you give him a gilded piece of lead saying that it is gold you would have reason to fear of his test.

The Buddha advised us not to be alarmed by criticism, but listen to criticism very carefully and mindfully without getting upset about what we hear and measure it by the text. After thorough investigation, we certainly find no fault in the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha. However, we will find out that the criticism has come from anger, prejudice, frustration, fear, neuroses, paranoia, etc. Then, of course, instead of getting angry with the person who has all these problems, we should try to help him with loving-kindness. He deserves our loving-kindness and compassion rather than our hate. No hate is ever going to solve any problem in the world and it never did, for hate is never appeased by hatred in this world, but by love alone.

In the teaching of the Buddha, one finds no room for resolving any problem through violent means. A Buddhist who is full of greed, hatred and delusion and unmindful of the Buddha’s real message, exercising his total freedom of choice and responsibility guaranteed in Buddhism, may kill someone, but he can never quote any Buddhist text to justify and support his killing.

We are supposed to use the Buddha Dhamma without clinging to it, but only to cross this cycle of birth and death—Samsara. He advised us to use his teaching like a raft which is used only to cross a body of water not to cling to it. It is the passionate clinging to what we believe, rather than understanding how we should use it to guide our daily life in the right direction, that arouses our deeply rooted hatred which may force us to solve our problems through violent means. It is the passionate clinging to things that creates all kinds of problems.

©2002 Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

We are supposed to use the Buddha Dhamma without clinging to it, but only to cross this cycle of birth and death—Samsara.