|Here, water snake, water snake! (Trouillebert)|
They focus on the skillfulness needed to comprehend right views properly as a means of bringing about the complete end of suffering. But rather than taking it as an object of clinging, even with views and the Dharma that helps one to cross over to the further shore, one lets it go when it has done its job of getting beyond suffering.
In the first section leading up to the simile of the water snake, the focus is on the danger of misapprehending the Dharma in general, particularly teachings related to sensuality. The sutra does not elaborate how the offending monk, Arittha, formulated his misunderstanding of the Dharma, but the Commentary suggests this plausible scenario:
"'There are people living the household life [of a lay practitioner rather than a monastic], enjoying the five pleasures of the senses, who are stream-winners, once-returners, and non-returners [the first three stages of enlightenment short of the arhat, the fully enlightened person]. As for monastics, they see pleasurable forms cognizable by the eye, hear... smell... taste... touch (pleasurable) tactile sensations cognizable by the body. They use soft carpets and clothing. All of this is proper.
"Then why should not the sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel of a woman be proper? They too are proper!' Thus... comparing a mustard seed with Mount Sineru [Mt. Sumeru, the world mountain of incredible dimensions reaching up into space], Arittha gives rise to the pernicious view, 'Why did the Blessed One -- binding the ocean, as it were, with great effort -- formulate the first defeat (parajika) training rule (against sexual intercourse)? There is nothing wrong with that act.'"
Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dharma (the teaching that leads to enlightenment and nirvana, to realization and liberation) is ultimately to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text -- the Diamond Sutra -- foolishly interprets the simile of the raft as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river.
However, the simile of the water snake makes the point that the Dharma first has to be correctly grasped. The trick rests on grasping it properly. When this point is applied to the simile of the raft, the implication is very clear: A Buddhist practitioner has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore -- when it has fully served its function -- can one let go of it.
Taken together, these two similes set the stage for the remainder of the sutra, which focuses on the inscrutable teaching of not-self (anatta) crucial to a real understanding of Buddhism and the Buddha's message of complete liberation. The danger here is that due to its subtlety, complexity, and paradoxical nature, this teaching is one of the most easily misunderstood teachings in the entire Canon -- largely because it is possible to draw many incorrect inferences from it. (Ultimately it can only really be understood by direct realization, not by philosophy or sophistry. The Dharma is for understanding, not debating, for liberation, not for argument).
Two mistaken inferences are particularly relevant here. The first concerns the range of the not-self teaching. (How could there NOT be a self? we naturally ask. But we must always understanding that it is said from a ultimate point of view. In a conventional sense, of course there is a self and it is often the topic of discussion. The great danger and the thing that leads to paradoxes is confusing ultimate and conventional truths).
Some have argued that, because the Buddha usually limits his teachings on "self" and the truth of not-self to the Five Aggregates -- form (body), feelings (sensations), perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness -- he leaves open the possibility that something else may be regarded as a "self." Or as the argument is often phrased, he denies the limited, temporal self as a means of pointing to one's identity with the larger, unlimited, cosmic self [exactly the wrong view held not only by the Brahmanism the Buddha faced, but by modern Hinduism that says it accepts the Buddha as yet another incarnation (avatar) of God, and even by Mahayana Buddhism].
However, in this discourse the Buddha explicitly phrases the not-self teaching in such a way as to refute any notion of cosmic self. [There is no self within or outside of the Five Aggregates, and once one understands the five, this becomes very clear, as Wisdom Quarterly has dealt with this tricky topic many times before. It is the central point of the most famous of all Buddhist discourses, the Heart Sutra.]
Instead of centering his discussion of not-self on the Five Aggregates, the Buddha here focuses on the first four aggregates plus two other possible objects of self-identification -- both more explicitly cosmic in their range -- (1) all that can be seen, heard, otherwise sensed, cognized, attained, sought after, or pondered by the intellect, and (2) the cosmos as a whole, eternal and unchanging.
In fact, the Buddha holds this last view up to particular scrutiny and even some ridicule, as the teaching of a fool, for two reasons that are developed at different points in this discourse. (1) If the cosmos were "me," then it must also be "mine," which is obviously not the case. (2) There is nothing in the entire experience of the universe that is eternal or unchanging or that deserves to be clung to as "me" or "mine."
The second mistaken inference is that, given the thoroughness with which the Buddha teaches not-self, we should draw the inference that there is no self. This inference is treated less explicitly in this discourse, although it is touched upon briefly in terms of what the Buddha teaches here and how he teaches.
In terms of what the Buddha teaches, he explicitly states that he cannot envision a doctrine of self that, if clung to, could possibly avoid sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, or despair. He does not list all of the possible doctrines of self included under this statement, but MN 2 provides at least a partial list:
This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the ordinary uninstructed worldling is not freed from birth, aging, or death, not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. One is not freed, I tell you, from disappointment or suffering.
So it is important to focus on how the Dharma is taught: Even in the Buddha's most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, he never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption [the faith, belief, or dogma] that there is no self.
Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving of a "self" and then to recommend dropping them. For example, in his standard series of questions building on the logic of the impermanence and suffering of the aggregates, he does not say that because the aggregates [the groups or heaps of form, feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousnesses] are inconstant and painful there is no self. Instead he asks, When they are impermanent and suffering, is it correct to assume or say that they are "me, my self, what I am"?
Because the sense of self is a direct product of "I-making," the question gives rise a liberating sense of disenchantment and dispassion [to counter greed and craving] for that very I-making process and to put a stop to it. Once accomplished, the teaching fulfills its purpose of putting an end to disappointment suffering and stress. That's the safety of the further shore.
As the Buddha says in this discourse, "Both formerly and now, monastics, I declare only suffering and the cessation of suffering." As he also says here, when views of self are finally dropped, one is free from agitation. And as MN 140 points out, when one is truly free of agitation is nirvana experienced. The raft has reached the further shore and one can leave it there -- free to go where one likes, in a way that cannot be traced.
The Water Snake Simile
"Monastics, there is the case where some foolish persons study the Dharma: sutras, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, inspired exclamations, quotations, past birth stories, amazing events, question and answer sessions. [These are the earliest classifications of the Buddha's teachings]. Having studied the Dharma, they do not ascertain the meaning (or the purpose) of those things (dhammas)  with wisdom (proper discernment).
"Not having ascertained the meaning of those things with wisdom, they do not come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dharma both for arguing with others and for defending themselves in debate. They do not reach the goal for which [persons rightly] study the Dharma. Their wrong grasp of those things will lead to their harm and suffering for a long time. Why is that? It is because of the misapprehension (mis-grasping) of things.
The Raft Simile
|My own Dharma boat is for crossing over.|