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Thread: Why Zen Has No Raft

  1. #1

    Why Zen Has No Raft

    I was inspired to write this blog post based on the recent discussion in the Mechanics of Enlightenment thread. It may be completely off the point but I know that others won't be backward in coming forward to point out the flaws and I am happy to learn where my thinking is mistaken.

    "From the very beginning

    all beings are Buddha.
    Like water and ice,
    without water no ice,
    outside us no Buddhas."

    -- Hakuin Ekaku

    "We usually donít look. We overlook."

    -- Alan Watts

    In the parable of the raft (Alagaddupama Sutta, verses 13-15), the Buddha compares the dharma to a raft for transporting sentient beings from the near shore of samsara to the far shore of nirvana. Just as after crossing a river it would be foolish to continue to carry a raft, once nirvana is reached there is no more need for the dharma; all concepts around Buddhism and being Buddhist can be let go.

    Shortly after the Buddha achieved awakening under the Bodhi tree, he was met by a man on the road who, in seeing there was something special about him, asked 'What are you?'. The Buddha did not identify himself as a man or by any other label corresponding to his rank, religion, clan, or ethnicity. He merely declared himself to be one thing Ė awake.

    So, what is wrong with having a raft to carry you across the river of delusion? Well, the mere idea we need a raft suggests that there is somewhere to go and something we need to do to get there. Rather than building a raft only to dismantle it later, Zen cuts through the falsehood that the near and far shore are different places and reveals that we are where we wanted to be all along. Given that this is the case, the obvious question arises of why we need to practice, and this is something that has greatly bothered many Zen practitioners, including Dogen himself. Also, if we are already Buddhas, as Hakuin says, why are we still beset by greed, anger and ignorance?

    Zazen, in essence, is seeing where we already are. Most of the time our conceptual mind sees the world based on our cultural and biological conditioning rather than how things are and in zazen these are allowed to drop away leaving just what is with no notion of 'us and them', 'I and other', 'here and there' and so forth. Experience is accepted rather than pushed away releasing us from struggle.

    In many cultures we are taught from an early age to strive for what we want and even that 'the devil finds work for idle hands' so the practice of 'non-doing' is not only strange but anathema to our way of being. No wonder, then, that so many students coming to zazen for the first time feel that something is missing. 'Just sitting' makes no sense as a practice and they want to know what the Zen raft is and how Zen describes the river we have to cross. Often, no amount of explanation can counter this and why would it? If the answer lies in experiencing things as they are, conceptual understanding is never going to work. Words may satisfy the intellect for a time, but further questions will undoubtedly arise.

    At the end of the day, you can build your raft all you like and it is not going to help you. Put down your hammer for a while and sit, though, and you might just see where you are.

    "So close you canít see it
    So deep you canít fathom it

    So simple you canít believe it
    So good you canít accept it."

    -- traditional teaching of Shangpa Buddhism

  2. #2
    thank you for this observation and explanation Karasu, this makes a lot of sense to me. it feels to be in the category of using an entanglement to destroy (or sink) an entaglement.



    Last edited by Oheso; 12-23-2013 at 08:19 PM.
    and neither are they otherwise.

  3. #3

    Two monks facing each other across a river:

    First monk (shouting): I need to get to the other side!

    Second monk (shouting): You already are!

    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  4. #4
    Hi Karasu,

    There is no raft, just as you say. That rings my bell, and I feel it is so.

    Yet, simultaneously true (I love to say that! ) some Dogenologists have pointed out that Dogen's view of constant "Practice-Enlightenment" implies that the raft is never put down ... all while also simulataneously () it arrives and arrives constantly at the "other shore" (even while still on this shore and mid-river! ). Here is from an older post:


    A traditional Buddhist image is that one wishes to cross the river or ocean on a raft of Practice to get from this shore of "ignorance" to the other shore of "enlightenment".

    But Master Dogen has a rather interesting view on such. He pointed out that this side of the water, the middle of the water and the other shore are all the water, Buddha ... that the whole voyage of beginning middle and end is arriving at Buddha ... and that one never should put down the raft of Practice even when reaching the other shore!

    Dogen wrote ...

    The principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment. For example, to practice is like crossing over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that having crossed the ocean one should discard the raft. The zazen of Buddha-ancestors is not like this, but is simply Buddha’s practice. We could say that the situation of Buddha’s house is the one in which the essence, practice, and expounding are one and the same. (Eihei Koroku, vol. 8:11)
    Taigen Dan Leighton puts it this way ...

    In many traditional branches of Buddhism, meditation practice may eventually lead to enlightenment. Dogen states that some people even practice "like having crossed over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that upon crossing the ocean one should discard the raft. The zazen of our Buddha ancestors is not like this, but is simply Buddha's practice." In this common Buddhist simile of the raft, once one reaches the other shore of liberation the raft (e.g. of meditative practice) is no longer needed. But Dogen implies that the practitioner should continue to carry the raft, even while trudging up into the mountains or down into the marketplace.

    For Dogen zazen is not waiting for enlightenment, but simply the practice of buddhas. This practice is not to acquire something in some other time, or in another state of consciousness or being. It is actually the practice of enlightenment or realization right now.

    I think we easily tend to think that this practice eventually may be something like, if I wait long enough, I'll be enlightened. If I put enough hours into sitting on this cushion, or enough lifetimes, some day, somewhere, when you least expect it, there it will be, the big Enlightenment.

    So he says: "The principle of zazen in other schools is to wait for enlightenment."

    In many branches of Buddhism you may hear about practicing and eventually reaching enlightenment. But here Dogen criticizes that. He says, for example, some people practice like having crossed over a great ocean on a raft, thinking that upon crossing the ocean one should discard the raft. That's very sensible, right? Maybe some of you have heard this simile of the raft, that once we reach the other shore we don't need the raft any more. But actually Dogen says to please carry the raft with you, as you trudge up into the mountains.

    The zazen of our Buddha ancestors is not like waiting for enlightenment, but is simply Buddha's practice.

    So this practice we do is not practice to get something, some so-called enlightenment somewhere else, in some other time, in some other state of mind. This is not practice to get higher, or reach some other state of consciousness or being. This is actually the practice of our enlightenment and realization right now. And enlightenment and realization, naturally, leads to practice. There is no enlightenment that is not actually put into practice. Then it would just be some idea of enlightenment; it wouldn't be the actual enlightenment. So each of you is practicing your realization right now. Each of you is realizing your practice right now. This is simply Buddha's practice.
    Rev. Kenshu Sugawara writes ...

    [I]n Fukanzazengi Zen Master Dogen points out the example of Shakyamuni Buddha who sat upright zazen for six years, although he was wise enough to know the Buddha Dharma at birth. He also mentions Bodhidharma, who sat facing a wall for nine years after coming to China though he had already attained the mind-seal. Dogen stresses that Buddha-ancestors do not practice zazen as a means to an end.

    Therefore, as is said in Gakudo Yojinshu, “Realization lies in practice.” Enlightenment is clearly manifested in the Buddha-ancestors’ zazen. In the same vein, in Bendowa Zen Master Dogen wrote, “To suppose that practice and realization are not one is a view of those outside the way. In Buddha Dharma they are inseparable.” He states that when instructing beginners we must teach them not to expect realization outside of practice. Practice is the immediate, original realization. The practice of beginner’s mind is itself the entire original realization. ...

    In other schools zazen is a means to gain enlightenment. Like a raft, it is no longer useful when the goal is achieved. Some people boast about their experiences of great enlightenment and kensho. If their zazen practice regresses because of such an experience, that experience is nothing but a delusion that becomes a hindrance to the continuation of practice.

    Zen Master Dogen says that the zazen of the Buddha-ancestors is Buddha’s practice. It is a very simple and plain practice of just continuing to sit, letting go of our views. Such zazen embodies the “situation of Buddha’s house” in which the essence (foundation/enlightenment), expounding (explaining the Dharma) and practice are one and the same. Therefore, there is no need to seek the Buddha outside zazen. Zazen is not a practice that produces a Buddha-ancestor but an action causing the Buddha-ancestors to live as Buddha-ancestors. The Buddha-ancestors are beings who have already clarified all kinds of enlightenment and psychological states. They have nothing more to gain, nothing more to realize. When zazen is valued as a practice performed by those Buddha-ancestors, the content of that zazen is called “nothing to attain nothing to enlighten” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki , book 6).

    When there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be realized, sitting zazen is “body-mind dropping off (shinjin datsuraku).” Body-mind dropping off is not a wonderful psychological state to be gained as a result of sitting zazen. Rather, zazen itself is nothing but “body-mind dropping off.” It is to escape all kinds of clinging. When we sit zazen, our body-mind naturally drops off and the true Dharma manifests.
    So, what raft? No raft! Ever raft! Sail on!

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-23-2013 at 04:19 PM.

  5. #5
    Thank you, Jundo. That makes a lot of sense.


  6. #6
    Andy and Jundo, thank you for this thread. I am a novice priest, so please interpret my comment as coming from a confused beginner - and you both write far more effectively than I do....

    It appears to me the notion of whether or not we continue to carry the raft or discard it when we reach the other side of the body of water sets up an unnecessary dichotomy in need of resolution. Yes, there are Buddhist sects that describe enlightenment as something to be attained, after which the vehicle (raft) is unnecessary, and it is also true that in Dogen's view practice and realization are an ongoing process.

    May I suggest that the notion of relinquishing the teachings, as well as the raft refer to 1) the dropping away of all concepts and 2) the ensuing recognition that that delusion and realization are one and the same? So what we are discussing is a cycle, a process of realization and ongoing practice that leads us to the the knowledge that our way is... "nothing special!" Delusion and realization are one and the same, and indeed one originates in the other. Maybe the appropriate imagery for me is that when I'm about to reach the opposite shore, the wind blows me back to where I started (and I have to bail out the raft along the way!)....

    Remember the story of Odysseus and his visit to Aeolus, the God of Winds? Aeolus gives him a bag containing the four winds as a present (and only the West wind is free to push them towards Ithaka). Odysseus, at the helm for days, falls asleep from exhaustion... his men, thinking the bag contains exotic treasure, open the bag - and all the winds are released and everyone is blown back to their starting point.... it seems to me that our practice is a continuous one... no goal to reach and at the same time in need of a strong aspiration, or determination to practice, as Dogen and Hakuin both state.

    Please excuse my awkward and clumsy view. Maybe I am saying the same thing you both have written, in a slightly different way.

    Deep bows
    Last edited by Yugen; 12-23-2013 at 04:58 PM.

  7. #7
    thanks to Jundo and you all.

    how fortunate my proximity.

    deep bows,

    and neither are they otherwise.

  8. #8
    And yet we sure do get somewhere, Yugen, ... and delusion is not simply ignorant delusion as it was before we set out.

    Gassho, J

  9. #9
    Thank you Jundo, and Andy, for the teaching!

    And yet we sure do get somewhere....

    Where it is we go we do not know.... (couldn't resist that)

    Deep bows
    Last edited by Yugen; 12-23-2013 at 05:09 PM.

  10. #10

    I think you are saying the same as Jundo. My own take is that we don't need the raft when we are already where we need to be whereas Jundo goes a step further, like you, saying that we do not stop carrying the raft.

    Either way, I think that what we are all pointing to is the fact there is not some goal to aim for at which point we stop practicing. Enlightenment only ever flowers through practice so why would we ever stop that? I just don't like using the raft simile for zazen as it suggests going (and getting) somewhere.


  11. #11
    Yes, I do agree with you. Thank you for a wonderful thread.

    Deep bows

  12. #12
    And yet we sure do get somewhere, Yugen,
    We do?

    Also, Yugen, my words really aren't a teaching (certainly not in the same way as Jundo's are) - merely trying to put some understanding (or lack of it) into words.


  13. #13
    I believe Jundo is referring to the fact that in the course of practice - realization we can acknowledge our delusion, whereas prior to practice we are immersed in it thoughtlessly, or driven by it.... expressed otherwise as an inability to see the forest for the trees.....

    Andy, the notion of a "good friend" in Zen practice includes the fact that we all learn from one another...and in that context I learn much from you.

    I apologize again for my awkwardness as a novice priest.

    Deep bows

  14. #14
    Thank you for your clarification, Yugen. I think it is me who is awkward in my understanding and I just blanched a little at being included in the same sentence of thanks for teaching as Jundo!

    And, yes, you are right. Moving forward but here all along.


  15. #15
    Thank you for this thread! It's been very clarifying. Applepologizing in advance, but I've gotta be this guy: also there is no raft, no shore, no samsara, and no enlightenment, while at the same time there are all of those things. It seems to me whether we choose to see the other shore as Nirvana, whether we continue to carry the raft when we're no longer surfing, or whether we see that the other shore is this shore we're on can depend on the circumstance. Sometimes we have to paddle our asses off across the seas of samsara; other times it's beneficial to see that there is nowhere to paddle. I guess the important thing to me is to remember that whether I am paddling or not, I am really the paddling or the not paddling. Nothing more, and nothing less. Anyway, that's what this self-proclaimed delusional mind groks (love how a bit of Heinlein has crept into our Zen dictionary by the way).

    Gassho, John

  16. #16
    Thanks for this Andy.

    One interpretation that stayed with me is Red Pine's likening the paramitas as a boat that takes us across the sea of suffering. My understanding is that in essence we are not really 'travelling' in the way of trying to get someplace but without prajna (wisdom) we are in a sense treading water. Without practice (sitting) we endlessly tread water in a delusional state.

    Referring back to the other thread (I've also been thinking on this) my feeling was that some of the confusion was more around ethics than personal enlightenment. I do have a lot of sympathy for this confusion as I think it causes problems and misunderstandings for a lot of beginners. It certainly did for me and I still get snagged up on it from time to time ( but then I see myself as a total beginner/novice).

    As has been said, it's difficult and illogical for a caring human being to hold these two notions of nothing to fix/everything to fix all at the same time. If this were easy to hold there would be no need for teachers, no need for intellectual study, no need for consistent practice.

    I feel without the practice of Zazen it is impossible to enter experientially into the truth of the teaching. So many Zen texts point to this truth - Dongshan Lianjie in 'Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi' writes A hairsbreadth deviation, and you are out of tune.

    The hairbreadth deviation seems to be the norm but once we've recognised/realised/actualized that being in tune is also the norm something in the mind/body resistances seems to shift. There is a recognition - in fact a re-cognition of what was there all along - of what is always there. So as Andy expressed - no need for a raft - or any distant shore to get to.

    Sorry if this is waffly. Would be sad for anyone to give up because they feel confused and as though there's something they're not quite getting.


    Last edited by Jinyo; 12-23-2013 at 09:10 PM.

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by willow View Post
    Thanks for this Andy.

    I feel without the practice of Zazen it is impossible to enter experientially into the truth of the teaching. So many Zen texts point to this truth - Dongshan Lianjie in 'Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi' writes A hairsbreadth deviation, and you are out of tune.

    Willow, deep bows to you for this


  18. #18

  19. #19
    Wonderful thread everyone, thank you. =)

    倫道 真現

  20. #20
    So many wise ways to sail-non-sail the raft here. Thank you all.

    Gassho, J

  21. #21

    Last edited by Jundo; 12-24-2013 at 03:02 AM.
    If I'm already enlightened why the hell is this so hard?

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