This is a parable which appears in different forms in several Buddhist texts. Like all parables, it attempts to communicate a concept by reference to an experience which was familiar to the audience. Since Buddhism began in Ancient India, rivers, water and ferryboats figure prominently in the mythology and stories of the era. This parable is supposed to offer a metaphor for understanding our progress on a spiritual journey.
Let's imagine that we are preparing to cross a vast river by ferryboat. Before the boat arrives at the dock, our perceptual interest will be focused on the preparations for the journey, who are fellow passengers may be. What we cannot focus on in any clear sense is our ultimate destination - we cannot see the far shore - and having never been there, we have no idea what it really will be like.
Once the boat approaches, our focus will shift to the boat itself, and to the captain and crew. We will be attentive to how they dock the boat, how well the crew and the captain work together and whether or not the boat looks seaworthy or not.
Once we board the boat and head out onto the river, our focus is almost entirely on the boat and the crew/captain of the boat. We cannot see our destination and the dock we just left is but a vague memory. We are intensely interested if we are making progress on our journey.
As we approach the shore again, our focus will change yet again to see what our destination may be like, what other passengers will be getting off at this point with us, etc.
The central question of the Buddha was this: "once he reaches his destination at the far shore, does the wise man pick up the ferryboat and carry it with him?" The obvious answer here is no- There is no further need for that particular vehicle on this journey.
This parable is supposed to represent our spiritual journey toward enlightenment - and the ferryboat is the particular religious doctrine which aids us on that journey. The point of the parable is supposed to be that once we have outgrown the doctrine, we can leave it behind and move forward. The worst thing that could happen is for the ferryboat to begin circling in the middle of the river and for the passengers to think that they were still making progress.
The question is, how do you select your ferryboat? One way is to pick a captain that we trust - but who can we trust? If we follow the teachings of the Buddha, any captain that tells you that they know the way for you to travel must be lying - if they knew the way to Enlightenment, they would be there already. The best way to insure that you will make progress on your spiritual journey is to become your own captain. See:
THE BUDDHA AND THE FIVE QUALITIES OF A DHARMA TEACHER
The nun Chiyono (Mugai Nyodai, 1223-1298) studied and meditated for years, most noteably under the venerated Zen master Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan (Bukko, 1226-1286, founder of Engakuji temple, arrived in Japan from China in 1280), on the ultimate question of existence, but was unable to reach the far shore. One moonlit night she was carrying an old bucket filled with water. As she walked along the path she noticed the full moon reflected in the pail of water. As she continued on, the bamboo strip that held the pail staves together began to break and the bucket started to come apart. The bottom of the pail broke through, and the water disappeared into the soil, the moon's reflection disappearing along with it. In that moment Chiyono realized that the moon she had been looking at was just a reflection of the real thing...just as her whole life had been.
The primary source for The Parable of the Ferryboat is found in MAJJHIMA NIKAYA 22, Alagaddupama Sutta, The Water-Snake Simile, as the Buddha explains the proper attitude to take to the Buddha Dharma using the parable:
"Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Listen and pay close attention. I will speak."
"As you say, lord," the monks responded to the Blessed One.
The Blessed One said: "Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, 'Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands and feet?' Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?' What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?"
"And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas."(source)
In contrast to the above, one day the Buddha met an ascetic who sat by the bank of a river. This ascetic had practised austerities for 25 years. The Buddha asked him what he had received for all his labor. The ascetic proudly replied that, now at last, he could cross the river by walking on the water. The Buddha pointed out that this gain was insignificant for all the years of labor, since he could cross the river using a ferry for one penny! (source)
STOP THE DISTANT ROWBOAT USING JUST YOU MIND
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
Copyright 1997© Michael J. Connelly,
Longview Community College