The Buddha's Raft Parable

What Does It Mean?

A Raft on a Shoe
© Landscape Artist / Getty Images

The raft parable is one of the best known of the Buddha's many parables and similes. Even people who know little else about Buddhism have heard the one about the raft (or, in some versions, a boat).

The basic story is this: A man traveling along a path came to a great expanse of water. As he stood on the shore, he realized there were dangers and discomforts all about. But the other shore appeared safe and inviting.

The man looked for a boat or a bridge and found neither. But with great effort he gathered grass, twigs and branches and tied them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddled with his hands and feet and reached the safety of the other shore. He could continue his journey on dry land.

Now, what would he do with his makeshift raft? Would he drag it along with him or leave it behind? He would leave it, the Buddha said. Then the Buddha explained that the dharma is like a raft. It is useful for crossing over but not for holding onto, he said.

This simple story has inspired more than one interpretation. Was the Buddha saying that the dharma is a kind of provisional appliance that can be discarded when one is enlightened? That is how the parable often is understood.

Others argue (for reasons explained below) that it is really about how to properly hold, or understand, the Buddha's teaching.

And occasionally someone will cite the raft parable as an excuse to ignore the Eightfold Path, the Precepts, and the rest of the Buddha's teachings altogether, since you're going to ditch them, anyway.

The Story in Context

The raft parable appears in the Alagaddupama (Water Snake Simile) Sutta of the Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 22).

In this sutta, the Buddha discusses the importance of learning the dharma properly and the danger of clinging to views.

The sutta begins with an account of the monk Arittha, who was clinging to flawed views based on misunderstanding of the dharma. The other monks argued with him, but Arittha would not budge from his position. Eventually the Buddha was called upon to arbitrate. After correcting Arittha's misunderstanding, the Buddha followed up with two parables. The first parable is about a water snake, and the second is our parable of the raft.

In the first parable, a man (for reasons unexplained) went out looking for a water snake. And, sure enough, he found one. But he did not properly grasp the snake, and it gave him a poisonous bite.  This is compared to someone whose sloppy and inattentive study of the dharma leads to wrong-headed views.

The water snake parable introduces the raft parable. At the conclusion of the raft parable, the Buddha said,

"In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma [dharma] 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." [Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]

Most of the rest of the sutta is about anatta, or not-self, which is a widely misunderstood teaching. How easily can misunderstanding lead to wrong-headed views!

Two Interpretations

Buddhist author and scholar Damien Keown argues, in The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992), that dharma -- in particular morality, samadhi, and wisdom -- are represented in the story by the other shore, not by the raft. The raft parable is not telling us that we will abandon the Buddha's teaching and precepts upon enlightenment, Keown says. Rather, we will let go of provisional and imperfect understanding of the teachings.

Theravadin monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu has a slightly different view:

"...the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go."

The Raft and the Diamond Sutra

Variations on the raft parable appear in other scriptures. One notable example is found in the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra.

Many English translations of the Diamond suffer from the translators' attempts to make sense of it, and versions of this chapter are all over the map, so to speak. This is from Red Pine's translation:

"...fearless bodhisattvas do not cling to a dharma, much less to no dharma. This is the meaning behind the Tathagata's saying, 'A dharma teaching is like a raft. If you should let go of dharmas, how much more so no dharmas.'"

This bit of the Diamond Sutra also has been interpreted in various ways. A common understanding is that a wise bodhisattva recognizes the usefulness of dharma teachings without becoming attached to them, so that they are released when they have done their work. "No dharma" is sometimes explained as worldly matters or to the teachings of other traditions.

In the context of the Diamond Sutra, it would be foolish to consider this passage as a permission slip to ignore dharma teachings altogether. Throughout the sutra, the Buddha instructs us to not be bound by concepts, even concepts of "Buddha" and "dharma." For that reason, any conceptual interpretation of the Diamond will fall short (see "The Deeper Meaning of the Diamond Sutra").

And as long as you're still paddling, take care of the raft.