Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Ladder as a Raft

I love the simile of knowledge as a ladder that gets tossed aside once enlightenment is attained. I read about it first in Schopenhauer and then Wittgenstein. I knew Buddhists talk of a similar thing, but I didn't know it was a raft, as Karen Armstrong explains in Buddha:

'Letting go' is one of the keynotes of the Buddha's teaching. The enlightened person did not grab or hold on to even the most authoritative instructions. Everything was transient and nothing lasted. Until his disciples recognised this in every fibre of their being, they would never reach Nirvana. Even his own teachings must be jettisoned, once they had done their job. He once compared them to a raft, telling the story of a traveller who had come to a great expanse of water and desperately needed to get across. There was no bridge, no ferry, so he built a raft and rowed himself across the river. But then, the Buddha would ask his audeince, what should the traveller do with the raft? Shoudl he decide that because it had been so helpful to him, he should load it onto his back and lug it around with him wherever he went? Or should he simply moor it and continue his journey? The answer was obvious. 'In just the same way, bhikkhus, my teachings are like a raft, to be used to cross the river and not to be held on to,' the Buddha concluded. 'If you understand their raft-like nature correctly, you will even give up good teachings (dhamma), not to mention bad ones!' His Dhamma was wholly pragmatic. Its task was not to issue infallible definitions or to satisfy a disciple's intellectual curiosity about metaphysical questions. Its sole purpose was to enable people to get across the river of pain to the 'further shore.' His job was to relieve suffering and help his disciples attain the peace of Nirvana. Anything that did not serve that end was of no importance whatsoever.