03 May 2013

The Simile of the Raft

THERE are a small number of texts which are quoted again and again by Western Buddhists. Perhaps the most common is the so-called Kālāma Sutta and I have already spent several essays trying to demonstrate that it does not support the uses to which it is put (now combined into a booklet called Talking to the Kālāmas). Western Buddhists are simply mistaken about that text.

If the Kālāma Sutta is the most cited text then the Simile of the Raft from the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22; M i.130) would be a good contender for second. This is the text that tells us that the Dharma is a raft to get us to the other side, where it must be abandoned. What follows is an extract from my translation and commentary on the Alagaddūpama Sutta which I hope to publish at some point.

The Simile of the Raft
(M i.134-5)

Bhikkhus I will teach you the simile of ‘the raft for the purpose of getting across’. Pay attention and listen to what I will say. 
“Yes, Bhante,” the bhikkhus replied. 
The Bhagavan said “Suppose a man is following a stretch of road, and he comes to a great flood. The near bank is dangerous and frightening, the far bank is safe and secure. There is no boat or bridge to cross the water. He thinks ‘what if I were to were to gather grass, wood, sticks and leaves and having woven them into a raft, I should swim, and safely cross to the other side?’ So he makes a raft and crosses the flood. Then once he has crossed over to the far bank he thinks: ‘this raft was very helpful to me in crossing the flood, what if I were to pick it up and carry it on my head or shoulders and go on my way?’”. 
“What do you think, bhikkhus, is this man acting sensibly if he takes the raft with him?” 
“No, Bhante.” 
“What would the sensible thing to do be? Here bhikkhus, he has crossed over to the far bank he thinks: ‘this raft was very helpful to me in crossing the flood, now let me haul it up to dry ground, or sink it in the water, and be on my way.’ That, bhikkhus, is the sensible way to act towards the raft. Just so, bhikkhus, I have taught the Dhamma as like a raft for ferrying, for getting across. 
Bhikkhus, through understanding the Dhamma in terms of this parable, you should renounce dhammas, and more-so non-dhammas.”

In this passage the Buddha certainly says that his dhamma is like a raft for crossing a river. And it is clear that having crossed a river, it is foolish to carry the raft along with you. However this is a simile, or really a parable, and the interpretation of what this parable means hinges on how we read the last sentence. The last sentence is the critical part of this passage, and it is also the most difficult to understand.

Now most people take this simile as saying that we don't need the Dhamma when we are enlightened, but this was not the Buddha's view as I will show below. The Buddha never abandoned the Dhamma as a refuge. So we can exclude this meaning. In order to understand the whole passage, to understand what the parable is pointing at with it's comparison of crossing a river we need to understand this last sentence.

dhamma and adhamma

The passage tells us that, having understood the Dhamma in terms of the parable of the raft then we ought to  renounce dhammā and more so adhammā (both in the plural): dhammāpi vo pahātabbā pageva adhammā. The words dhammā and adhammā have evoked a variety of renderings.

Buddhaghosa (MA ii.109) says that ‘dhammā’ here means calm and insight (samatha-vipassanā), specifically craving for calm and insight, but this does not make a great deal of sense, someone on the other shore has no craving to give up and one cannot abandon the raft before getting across. No modern exegetes seem to accept Buddhaghosa’s suggested interpretation. Horner interpreted the phrase as suggesting that we give up morality at the further shore (see Keown 1992: 93). Horner’s (1954) translation is “you should get rid even of (right) mental objects, all the more of wrong ones.” (p.173-4). Gethin (2008) interprets dhammā/adhammā as “good practices and bad practices” (p.161), which echoes Buddhaghosa but is less specific. However ‘practice’ is hardly a usual translation for dhamma (one might even say it is a mistranslation). Also there is plenty of evidence that the Buddha did not give up practice after his awakening.

Ñānamoli and Bodhi (2001) opt for the “teachings and things contrary to the teachings” which is at least a possible translation. I am doubtful about dhammā in the plural being interpreted in the sense of ‘teaching’ (I’ll return to this). Bodhi’s footnote (p. 1209, n.255) acknowledges the ambiguity and justifies their translation with a pious homily. Thanissaro (2010) does not translate the key terms: “you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas." The capitalisation implies that he understands ‘teachings’, as dhammā as ‘things’ is seldom capitalised and he therefore has the same problem as Ñānamoli and Bodhi. Piya (2003) also avoids committing himself: “you should abandon even the dharmas, how much more that which is not dharmas” [sic]. He refers to MA and Bodhi’s footnote for an explanation, thus seems to be accepting Ñānamoli and Bodhi's reading.

Richard Gombrich (1996) has weighed in with support for translating ‘teachings’ and ‘non-teachings’: “The Buddha concludes that his dhammā, his teachings are to be let go of, let alone adhammā. The occasion for this whole discourse is given by Ariṭṭha, who obstinately declared that he understood the Buddha’s teaching in a certain [wrong] sense.” (p.24). The argument that dhammā in the last sentence is not the dhamma referred to in the earlier parts of the passage Gombrich declares to be “sheer scholastic literalism” (p.24), but I have been unable to locate another passage in which the Buddha uses dhammā in the plural to describe his teaching. Gombrich comments on the irony of taking literally a text preaching against literalism (p.22), with the implication that Ariṭṭha--to whom he emphasises the sutta was directed--is guilty of literalism, or of clinging to the Dhamma. However Ariṭṭha was guilty of stubbornly refusing to relinquish a completely wrong interpretation. He is not a literalist, but simply has a wrong view. His problem is that he does not take the Buddha’s injunction literally enough! That the simile of grasping the snake at the wrong end, which immediately precedes the raft simile, applies to Ariṭṭha we cannot doubt. Ariṭṭha has misunderstood the teaching. The simile of the raft appears to be talking about something entirely different, and unrelated to Ariṭṭha. This is so striking when reading the text that I am inclined to agree with Keown who speculates that the sutta is a composite of originally separate sections (p.96).

Basing his discussion solely on Ñānamoli and Bodhi’s translation, Jonardon Ganeri has attempted to problematise the idea of abandoning the teachings. Firstly he says that if we take dhammā to mean teachings then the teachings only have instrumental value (p.132). Ironically this is not really a problem from a Buddhist point of view as we tend to see the teachings instrumentally (though there are Buddhist fundamentalists). His other argument, which relies on interpreting the Buddha’s word as ‘Truth’ is that for one on the other side “truth ceases altogether to be something of value” (p.132). Again this is not really an issue for Buddhism as truth as expressed in language is always provisional. The ‘Truth’ (if there is such a thing) is experiential, and on experiencing bodhi and vimutti one does not need provisional truth any more. Ganeri seems to misunderstand the pragmatic way Buddhism values truth – truth is whatever is helpful. This is epitomised in two now clichéd passages: in the Kesamutti Sutta (A i.188ff) where the Buddha tells the Kālāma people to trust their own experience in determining right and wrong conduct; and at Vin ii.10 where the Buddha tells his aunt Mahāpajāpatī that the Dhamma is whatever conducive to nibbāna.

If we accept Ñānamoli and Bodhi’s ‘teachings and things contrary to the teachings’ then we must state the standard caveat, which is that one only abandons the teachings after reaching the further shore. Too often this passage is used to attack doctrine being applied on this shore, or in the flood. There is no suggestion but that we absolutely need the raft until we are safely on the other side. 

Thus from various reputable scholars we get the full range of possibilities for translating dhammā: ‘teaching, morality, things, mental objects’.

This parable is also examined in depth by Keown (1992), where he points out that this is the only mention of abandoning the raft (p.95) and that in other texts “it is made perfectly clear that sīla along with samādhi and paññā are part of the further shore and are not left behind on the near side after enlightenment.” (p.95). As Keown points out, in some texts the further shore is morality (e.g. A v.232, and v.252f ). I would add that this idea that one abandons the Dhamma after enlightenment is flatly contradicted in the Gārava Sutta:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti. (S i.139) 
“I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very dhamma to which I have fully-awakened” 
The Buddha himself does not give up on Dhamma, why should anyone else? This militates against interpreting dhammā as ‘teachings’. Keown’s tentative translation is “…good things (dhammā) must be left behind, much more so evil things (adhammā)” though he affirms the ambiguity. Keown notes that in other places where dhammā and adhammā are contrasted, they seem to mean good things and bad things (p.101). He concludes that the simile has two purposes: 1. to affirm that the dhamma is for the purpose of salvation and no other purpose (this being the main point of the first part of the Alagaddūpama Sutta); and 2. that we must not become emotionally attached to particular doctrines, practices, teachings or philosophical views, and that none should assume a disproportionate status. But that things which are unambiguously evil must certainly be rejected (p.102). Keown is at least thorough and pays attention to the text, and tries to take the text on its own terms, but I still don't find his interpretation satisfying because, again, the Buddha does not give up good things after his awakening. 

Kalupahana (1986: 183) agrees with Keown’s interpretation of adharma in discussing chapter 8 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. “While it is true that the term dharma is used in the Buddhist texts, both in an ontological sense (referring to ‘phenomena’) and in a more ethical sense (meaning ‘good’), there is no evidence at all that the negative term a-dharma was ever used in the former sense.” Thus he treats it as synonymous with akuśala. However we have to take Kalupahana with a grain of salt, because neither the Buddha nor Nāgārjuna thought of dhamma as having an "ontological sense". Indeed both go out of their way to deny this. Dhamma qua phenomena have no ontological status: they are neither existent nor non-existent. It is Kalupahana himself who draws attention to the role of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (S 12.15) in the Mūlamadhyamakārikā. And it is in the Kaccānagotta Sutta where this is plainly stated. Kalupahana himself constantly rejects ontology in his discussion of the texts. His desire to squeeze Buddhism into a Western mould has mixed success. 

Despite this plethora of interpretations by leading interpreters of Buddhism, I can offer yet another. A little later in the Alagaddūpama Sutta one of the bhikkhus asks: “could one be tormented by something externally non-existing (bahiddhā asati)?” The reply is:
“You could, bhikkhu,” replied the Bhagavan. “Suppose one thought like this: ‘it was mine, [now] it is not mine; it might be mine, but I can’t get it.’ They are upset and miserable; distressed and depressed. They are tormented by something externally non-existing.”
By something externally non-existing is meant 'something that they do not possess'. Note here that the thing desired is not non-existent (asati) in the absolute sense, but is merely something lost, or unobtainable. In light of this I suggest that dhammā here could also be ‘things’ (that exist) and adhammā is ‘non-things’ (things that don’t exist in this sense). That is to say we must abandon attachment to what we have, and to what we wish to have. This is not a perfect answer to the problem, but it has the real advantage of not requiring the arahant to give up something that arahants were extremely unlikely to give up!

In the Gārava Sutta (SN 6.2 PTS S i.139) we find the Buddha explicitly turning to the Dharma as his refuge:
Yaṃnūnāhaṃ yvāyaṃ dhammo mayā abhisambuddho tameva dhammaṃ sakkatvā garuṃ katvā upanissāya vihareyyanti. 
I will reverence, pay my respects, and dwell in subordination to that very Dhamma to which I have fully-awakened.
However, no single view of this simile appears to be unproblematic. All we can say with any certainty is that the pop-Buddhism answer that one gives up the Dharma as teaching when one is enlightened is a non-starter. Nor do we give up practising the Dharma. As far as I am aware, none of the enlightened figures of history ever renounced the Dharma. 



Ganeri, Jonardon. 2002. 'Why truth? The Snake Sūtra.' Contemporary Buddhism, 3,2 2002: 127-139.

Gethin, Rupert. 2008. Sayings of the Buddha. Oxford University Press, p.156-167.

Gombrich, Richard. 1996. How Buddhism Began : The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London: Athlone.

Horner, I.B. 1954. 'Discourse on the Parable of the Water-Snake.' The Collection of Middle Length Sayings. London: Luzac, p.167-182.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. State University of New York Press.

Keown, Damien. 1992 The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Ñānamoli and Bodhi. 2001. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. 2nd ed. Wisdom, p.224-236.

Piya Tan. 2003. Alagaddūpama Sutta: The Discourse on the Parable of the Water-snake [Proper grasp of the Buddha’s Teaching], Majjhima Nikāya (22/1:130-142). Online: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/3.13-Alagaddupama-S-m22-piya.pdf

Thanissaro. (trans.) 2010a 'Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile.' Access to Insight. Online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html.
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