In South Asia, during the rainy season, the monsoons rains come pouring down mightily and heavily. When the rains pour down, the rivers swell up and widen, and their current becomes fierce and tumultuous. Seemingly out of nowhere, many streams previously non-existent appear throughout the countryside. The water from the rainsweeps down over the mountains and hills, filling up the creeks and brooks until they too become rivers. Yet despite the arrival of the rainy season, people still have to move from place to place — for business, shopping, or family affairs — and to travel to distant destinations they often have to cross these rivers. For this reason the image of crossing a river, of moving from this shore to the far shore, plays a prominent role in the different forms of Indian religion and spirituality, and Buddhism too makes ample use of this image.
Within this image, “this shore” represents samsara, the round of rebirths through which all unenlightened sentient beings havebeen roaming and wandering without any first point in time. Samsara is divided into various realms. Those beings who run up and down “this shore” are those who move from one plane of existence to another, without seeing any route of escape. Sometimes they go from a lower realm to a higher realm, sometimes from a higher realm to a lower realm. But, whether they go up or down, they are like animals in a cage, just running in circles without getting anywhere. What keeps us bound to this round of rebirths, according to the Buddha, is our ignorance and craving, which in conjunction with our volitional actions (karma) drive us to one realm or another.
Some modern interpreters of Buddhism say that this whole teaching about karma and rebirth is part of ancient Indian mythology that the Buddha just accepted and took on board as part of his Indian cultural heritage. They say that if we are to make Buddhism meaningful for modern people, we should strip away all these ancient culrural accretions and devise a version of Buddhism that applies exclusively to life here and now. If we take this attitude, it seems we’re directly challenging the enlightenment of the Buddha. The Buddha didn’t say that these teachings of karma and rebirth should be accepted because they belong to the Indian spiritual heritage. He says, rather, that he has realized and seen these things for himself. To remove these teachings from Buddhist doctrine is in effect to remove the world-transcending aspect of the Dharma, leaving us with a version of Buddhism that is little more than a sophisticated ancient psychotherapy. It’s a little bit like taking a car and then thinking, “Why should we keep the tires on the car? It would really look much better without them.” So we remove the tires, convinced that now we have a really super-looking car. But if we get in and try to drive, we don’t get anywhere. From this we can see how important it is to preserve the integrity of the original teaching by retaining these doctrines.
So, in the Buddhist worldview, this shore is samsara, the cycle of rebirth driven by ignorance, craving, and karma; and the far shore is Nirvana, the birth less and deathless. Whereas samsara is the realm of suffering and commotion, Nirvana is the state of supreme bliss and peace. The task the Buddha sets before us is to move from this present shore of samsara to the far shore of Nirvana; and what takes us across from the near shore to the far shore is the Buddhist path. That is why the Buddha compares his teaching to a raft: it enables us to cross the stream and reach the far shore.
In the verse the Buddha says: “those who in this well-expounded Dhamma practice in accordance with the Dhamma.” If we examine the discourses spoken by the Buddha, we can easily see that they are well expounded. First, they’re completely clear. Even though they might be deep in meaning, the thinking they display is razor sharp, not at all vague or muddled. The teachings are consistent; they all fit together into one piece. Ethically, the teachings are impeccable; one can’t find any faults in them. They are realistic in that they describe things the way they really are; the teachings don’t leadus down a garden path into realms of wishful fantasy. The Buddha’s approach is nondogmatic and experiential. When one practices the Dhamma, one can see for oneself that it brings beneficial results right here and now. On this basis, one can develop the confidence that if one practices diligently one will eventually win liberation from all suffering.
In order to gain liberation from the realm of death, it’s not enough just to have an excellent or well-expounded teaching. Above all, it’s of prime important to practice it. The practice of the teaching unfolds methodically and systematically, stage by stage. One has to begin by leading a moral life, by accepting the precepts and disciplining one’s conduct in harmony with the precepts. By accepting and following the precepts, one transforms one’s behavior so that it conforms to the ideal standards of the noble ones.
Then, on the basis of morality, one has to develop concentration or samadhi. Concentration is the process of learning how to make the mind calm, composed, and inwardly focused. When the mind is concentrated, one undertakes the development of prajña, wisdom. Wisdom is the insight or understanding that arises from direct contemplatoon of phenomena. It discerns, perceives, and recognizes the true nature of things, their true characteristics.
The true characteristics of phenomena as taught by the Buddha are threefold. The first is the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena. The second is the unsatisfactorridness of all conditioned phenomena, the fact that all conditioned phenomena are in some way bound up with suffering, unable to satisfy our yearning for perfect security. The third is the selfless nature of all phenomena, the fact that all phenomena are devoid of any substantial self or intrinsic essence. Of these three characteristics, the deepest and most difficult to see is selflessness, yet it is just this that must be seen if we are to cut the bonds that hold us to the round of birth and death.
As our wisdom matures, it cuts through subtler and subtler layers of ignorance and craving, until it cuts off the fetter of ignorance entirely, just like cutting through a leather strap. As we cut through the fetter of ignorance, the four bonds fall away. With the first cut, the bond of wrong views falls away. With the next cut, the craving for sense plea- suers falls away. With the third cut, the craving for continued existence falls away. And with the last cut, the subtlest bond of ignorance falls away. When we accomplish this, we have crossed the stream and reached the final goal — the far shore of Nirvana.
(From a Dharma talk given by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bodhi Monastery, August 10, 2002)