One of the Buddha’s most famous teachings is the Parable of the Raft. In it he likened his teachings to a raft for crossing a fast-flowing river.
A man is trapped on one side of a river. On this side of the river, there is great danger and uncertainty; on the far side is safety. But there is no bridge spanning the river, nor is there a ferry to cross over. What to do? The man gathers together logs, leaves, and creepers and by his wit fashions a raft from these materials. By lying on the raft and using his hands and feet as paddles he manages to cross the river from the dangerous side to the side of safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question. What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself, That raft has served me well I will carry it on my back over the land now? The monks replied that it would not be a very sensible idea to cling to the raft in such a way. The Buddha went on, What if he lay the raft down gratefully thinking that this raft has served him well but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore? The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude. The Buddha concluded by saying, So it is with my teachings which are like a raft and are for crossing over with—not for seizing hold of.
In the early stages of faith and life there is a lot of raft-seizing. We find a truth or a piece of the truth, and we make it absolute. It starts out with things like, My family is the best. My country is the greatest. My team is all. My race is the crown of civilization. My religion is the only true one. There are gifts and blessings in all these things, but they can all be absolutized and used to defend the ego—the individual ego or the group ego. We see this right now as Israelis and Palestinians trade killings that include women and children in the name of their highest good.
One of the principles behind this parable is the Buddha’s sense that spirituality ought to be practical. He did not want to waste any time on what he called “speculation,” theological disquisitions on things like, How can God be three and one and the same time? Is there a real heaven and hell somewhere? Which sins are mortal and which are only venial? Did this miracle in the Bible actually happen? Who are the ‘elect’? Was Mary really a virgin? None of these things can be known, and we waste our time and energies pursuing them, and often debating and even fighting over them.
Spirituality, said the Buddha, ought to be practical. Use the truths that are given to you as a raft, to carry you through troubled times, to help you find your way to safety and blessing. But don’t keep carrying the raft around. Don’t set the raft up in a chapel somewhere and start worshiping it. And for sure, don’t fight with others about whose raft is really the true raft.
This is certainly a parable for our day.