Why Zen Has No Raft

“From the very beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice,without water no ice,
outside us no Buddhas.”
— Hakuin Ekaku

“We usually don’t 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 – 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 do we still experience 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.  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 and there is no 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 and you might just see where you are.

“So close you can’t see it
So deep you can’t fathom it

So simple you can’t believe it
So good you can’t accept it.”
— traditional teaching of Shangpa Buddhism

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