The simile of the raft: another interpretation

This article originally appeared in Bernat’s website at https://budismosecular.org/blog/It appears on SBN with his kind permission.


For some time I have suspected that the famous simile of the raft has been misinterpreted. Or to be more specific, over-interpreted. It has been used in excess to justify specific attitudes, as I will explain in a minute. At the outset this seems to work against me: after all, this simile pops up regularly in debates on innovation in Buddhism, it acts as a validation seal. Stephen Batchelor uses it often to argue that the various forms of Buddhism are temporary, means rather than absolute truths.

But it has also been used to build hierarchies, to claim oneself to be above the dharma or beyond good and evil: it’s all a temporary device, relative truth, and so on. Such is the oppression that some feel at the slightest suggestion of what to do in life, in contrast to a so-called ‘authenticity’, that they suggest throwing the raft in the middle of the river, or even before plunging into it.

This is the simile of the raft:

“Suppose there was a person traveling along the road. They’d see a large deluge, whose near shore was dubious and perilous, while the far shore was a sanctuary free of peril. But there was no ferryboat or bridge for crossing over. They’d think, ‘Why don’t I gather grass, sticks, branches, and leaves and make a raft? Riding on the raft, and paddling with my hands and feet, I can safely reach the far shore.’ And so they’d do exactly that. And when they’d crossed over to the far shore, they’d think, ‘This raft has been very helpful to me. Riding on the raft, and paddling with my hands and feet, I have safely crossed over to the far shore. Why don’t I hoist it on my head or pick it up on my shoulder and go wherever I want?’ What do you think, mendicants? Would that person be doing what should be done with that raft?” “No, sir.”

“And what, mendicants, should that person do with the raft? When they’d crossed over they should think, ‘This raft has been very helpful to me. … Why don’t I beach it on dry land or set it adrift on the water and go wherever I want?’ That’s what that person should do with the raft. In the same way, I have taught how the teaching is similar to a raft: it’s for crossing over, not for holding on. By understanding the simile of the raft, you will even give up the teachings, let alone what is against the teachings.”

Alagaddūpama Sutta, MN 22 (translation by Sujato)

What I think has been over-interpreted is the time element. The raft part of the comparison has a temporal dimension: first you cross the river and then you leave the raft behind instead of continuing overland with it on your back. But the Buddha does not transfer this to the dharma: first use it and then leave it behind. What he says is that just like the sensible use of a raft is to cross a river, not to carry it on your back while going overland, the proper use of the teachings is to liberate yourself, not to argue about them.

Crossing the river is a metaphor for liberation: going from this shore to the other shore. And clinging is applicable to both a physical object – like a raft – and a mental one – for example, ideas and opinions about what the dharma is about. And the target of the criticism is precisely this: disputes. In this discourse (sutta), the raft is the second simile to illustrate this critique. The previous one, which gives its name to the discourse, is that of the snake.

In the simile of the snake, the Buddha says that if you need a snake (presumably for the medical uses of its venom) you have to grab the snake by the head and not by the tail, because if you grab it by the tail the snake will turn and bite you. In other words: the plan will backfire. You will certainly get the venom you were looking for, but for the very opposite of why you needed it. Similarly, says the Buddha, there are those who become interested in the dharma but then do not use it to heal, to free themselves, but to discuss this and that, bring up quotes, and win dialectical competitions. This person will not experience the benefits for which they learned the dharma.They will not find well-being. The plan will backfire.

The simile of the raft appears right afterwards, and obviously illustrates the same point, especially if we take into account that this discourse begins with the monk Ariṭṭha defending to death that the Buddha has taught something he has not. So in my view what is being compared here is the sensible way of using a raft with the sensible way of using the dharma, not the instrumental (and temporal) question of first using it and then discarding it.

The instrumental interpretation relates to the idea of ​​skillful means: the dharma is a means, not an end. This is a key concept in the very history of Buddhism. It’s not light years away from the interpretation I am proposing, the nuance is subtle — perhaps I could be accused of grabbing a snake by the tail with this blog post. But it is for pragmatic reasons that I want to emphasize what, to me, is the most interesting aspect in the simile of the raft: not investing in sectarian disputes.

In today’s context this would manifest as tolerance for the various forms the dharma has taken – and will continue to take. This does not mean that you can no longer reflect critically on them, argue, and take sides. But if we understand the simile’s message as the teachings being provisional rather than absolute, we can easily use it (contradicting the spirit of that message) to apply it to other forms of the dharma and to establish hierarchies.

The raft is then used not to validate a Buddhist innovation, but to justify it by saying that the previous teachings were mere tricks that the Buddha employed to teach those who were a bit slow – the Mahayana rhetoric – or to be condescending towards innovations, get indignant, and treat them as distortions of the true and original doctrine; basically, accusing them of doing like Ariṭṭha – the conservative and Theravada rhetoric.


Short detour begins. There is another problem with the idea that the teachings are just a skillful means, which I stole from John Hick . He asks: a skillful means to what end? Logically, provisionality cannot be applied to absolutely everything, for then the system would lack a basis. A means is something that is applied to an end, and this end must be considered a good in itself. If not, how do we justify using any skillful means? But this is a can of worms we will not open. Short detour ends.


The point, in what I’m highlighting from the simile, is to realize that holding one’s own version of the dharma  as the only valid one and considering the others wrong is a form of attachment that will not lead to anything good and that contradicts the practice itself. It may contribute to a sense of identity, belonging, coherence and direction, and that is useful in certain stages of the practice. But in the long run a closed and dogmatic attitude will reinforce harmful mental patterns. It will weigh on our shoulders, it will bite our hand, it will backfire.

To finish, I insist once more that none of this implies erasing the province of debate from the dharmic map. I am critical of Buddhism, and from that critical attitude I get my perspective on the practice and thus I shape my path. I am not ‘neutral’, I am not at the same distance from all the different Buddhist schools. But I am willing to see positive things in all of them. I may adopt aspects of traditions that are otherwise quite far from my usual territory, I may not and remain in simple appreciation — yet this is still part of cultivating positive mental qualities.

The raft of a secular Buddhist looks a bit odd, it turns heads on the regatta. But as long as we use it to cross over…


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COMMENTS

4 Replies to “The simile of the raft: another interpretation”

Karsten Struhl

This is an excellent succinct analysis of the simile of raft. The simile has been often used to suggest that the dharma is only a pragmatic tool and, therefore, that the Buddha was not interested
in objective truth. However, I think it is more reasonable to say that, for Buddha, the dharma is useful because it is true (objectively) but that it is a mistake to cling to some specific formulation of it. Of course, for us today, what components of the dharma we decide are true and how to use them is another question.

Hi Karsten, thanks for your appreciation. I’m ambivalent as to the Buddha’s interest in ‘objective truth’, given how much his emphasis is on the world of lived experience. But yes, I have heard and would agree, from a scholarly point of view, that early Buddhism holds that the dharma works because it IS in accord with how things are. Whether that actually means what we may refer to with ‘objective truth’ is more complex, I feel. But whatever the case, I believe it is not what the simile of the raft points to.

Karsten Struhl

Hi Bernat, yes, I would agree that the Buddha focuses on lived experience and does not attempt for the most part to do a metaphysics of what lies beyond experience (talk of karma and rebirth being an exception). Still, the Buddha is making some objective judgments about the structure of our (not just his) lived experience. That dukkha is caused by tanha , that the aggregates are impermanent, that there is no self are presented as objective truths about our minds and lived experience, although, depending on the interlocuter, these ideas may be expressed in different ways.

Dan Razzell

What a insightful and nuanced piece of writing! It was a pleasure to read and provides much food for thought.

I’m not so sure about the “detour” however. It seems to come a bit out of left field. I think the piece would be better served without it, though it might warrant exploration in a separate essay. But I wouldn’t comment except that it also strikes me as not quite internally correct. Here’s the problem:

“Logically, provisionality cannot be applied to absolutely everything, for then the system would lack a basis.”

Logic, like all formal systems, is axiomatic, meaning that formal systems are explicitly provisional. The axioms state the provisions to be taken as true. But the resulting system has no means to prove them true; at most it can find them mutually inconsistent.

So, provisionality does apply to everything. Does this mean that every formal system lacks a basis? Not at all. The system, complete with unprovable axioms, is its own basis.

“A means is something that is applied to an end, and this end must be considered a good in itself. If not, how do we justify using any skillful means? ”

We might simply be exploring the space of possibility. Life spontaneously does that, after all, and natural selection favors the more successful explorations. It’s not necessary to suppose a teleology.

You’ve hit upon the problem with absolute morality and its implications. It’s not a good fit to the observed universe.

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