Paramita means “arriving at the other shore.” Although the other shore does not have the appearance or trace from olden times, arriving is actualized. Arriving is the fundamental point. Do not think that practice leads to the other shore. Because there is practice on the other shore, when you practice, the other shore arrives. It is because this practice embodies the capacity to actualize all realms.
– Master Dogen Zenji
What does it mean to cross over to the other shore? What does it mean to take up a path of practice with the hopes of transforming our confusion, pain, and suffering on one side into clarity, peace, and ease? What is our actual experience in this moment?
We have been talking about bridges at Zen West, working with the koan Zhaozhu’s Bridge, Case 52 of the Blue Cliff Record. The evocative archetypal image of a great stone bridge alongside an ordinary log bridge sparked some lively group sharing of experiences with bridges — shaky ones, majestic ones, those of stone that depend on the careful positioning of each little piece, and those made of fallen trees or widely spaced stones that take balance and focus to cross. Everyone had some vivid connection with bridges and how they spanned raging rivers, deep caverns, and small trickling streams. In dreams, bridges show up often as a way of spanning two different states of consciousness, across a watery element. To hold itself up, a bridge depends on both sides. Although this koan invites us to reconcile the opposites of the ordinary log bridge — everyday simple practices, nothing special with the grand stone crossing, the student’s expectation of something extraordinary and fabulous — today I am more interested in the gap created by what is being crossed.
Here is one of the earliest Buddhist stories about crossing over:
A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. There is great danger and uncertainty where he stands, and on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines, and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety. The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’” The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way. The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?” The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude. The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”
Although this story is usually used to illustrate letting go of our attachment, even to Buddhist teachings and practices about nonattachment, what is also of vital importance is this fast flowing river and the making of the raft. Zazen is a practice that invites us to examine what is on one shore, and conversely, what we long for or imagine is on the other shore. In Zazen, we are encouraged, breath by breath, to hang out on this shore a little bit and examine the condition of mind without running off too quickly. What then is on this shore? The story says danger, all kinds of unpleasantness. What’s dangerous? We can take up any problem in our life and see what it is on this side we struggle with — loneliness, frustration, difficulty with relationships, illness, boredom, and so on. It is easy, then, to imagine on the other shore some kind of opposite, some relief from these conditions, some enlightenment that doesn’t include such things.
But the other shore is simply this shore — right in this very breath. It is this shore clarified. And what we do to clarify is also offered in the Buddha’s teaching story — we make a raft of our lives. Like the man in the story, wee gather all the causes and conditions we would rather toss out, gather together our experience in our relationships, our communities, in nature, in politics — in all their unique particulars — and bind them together with the twine of practice, the twine of a certain kind of openhanded attention, a loving kindness and insight that sees into the true nature of things. This nature is exemplified by the flowing river, constant movement, and change.
So the Zen path is very organic, gathering the things of this life, not some other life someone else is living and sitting with, resting upon. We look deeply into our fight with these conditions. Zen is also good exercise, it gets the heart moving, as we rest upon the condition of our life and start to paddle, start to take on the practices of the path with some ease and flow. We do this by making the posture of sitting a body habit, something that is our own. We do this by bowing naturally, allowing the body to bend and touch the earth. We do this by chanting with the breath from deep in the hara. Binding together the stuff of life with the form of practice, we do reach the other shore, which looks mysteriously like this shore – hmmm, same house, same spouse, same mouse in the kitchen cabinet – and yet …
Arriving fully into our life, some quality emerges that was always there but is now seen more clearly. We call this things as they are. Here there is no bridge, no raging river, no raft, no raft captain. Just this. If we want to practice in light of this story, here is the invitation:
1. Hang out at the foot of the bridge — resist the urge to move, sit Zazen, and examine this mind and its relationship to everything on this shore.
2. Make a raft of your life — the wanted and unwanted conditions, your gifts, your flaws, each concrete element, each person you meet – bound together by practice.
3. Become the river – see into the flow of all conditioned things.
4. Make a raft for others – to see into the nature of all things is to join the human condition, in which raft building emerges naturally from a clarified heart.
Enjoy the water …