Apr 10, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Map is not the Territory

The Buddha’s teachings are not the absolute truth about the nature of reality, nor is the path the Buddha laid out the actual path to this absolute truth.



One of the most famous parables told by the Buddha is the Parable of the Raft.  In this he likened his teachings to a raft for crossing a fast-flowing river.

The parable narrates how a man is trapped on one side of a river.  On this side, there is great danger and uncertainty and on the far side of the river is safety.  However there is no bridge spanning the river nor is there a ferry to cross over.  What to do?  The man gathers together logs, leaves, and creepers and by his wit fashions a raft from these materials.  By lying on the raft and using his hands and feet as paddles he manages to cross the river from the dangerous side to the side of safety.

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question.  What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river thought to himself – That raft has served me well I will carry it on my back over the land now?  The monks replied that it would not be a very sensible idea to cling to the raft in such a way.  The Buddha went on – 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.

This parable marks the attitude taken to the teachings given by the Buddha, firstly that their prime objective is to be of practical use and secondly to introduce the teaching of the Two Truths.  The ultimate Truth or Reality cannot be described by words and concepts and must be seen for oneself.  However the path that leads to that insight can be described and forms a map to show how to get there.  This truth is relative because it only describes the way to this Truth it is not the Truth itself nor is it the path itself.  The Buddhist practitioner must walk this path; it is not enough just to read about it or even to believe that it works!

Thus we must always bear in mind that the teachings, even the story of the Life of the Buddha are only descriptions, symbols pointing to something beyond the words and neither must they be taken as scientific fact or even historical truths.

This is why it is futile to become bogged down in ontological or epistemological arguments over these teachings.  The value of them is realised when they are used in the way they were designed to be used as a practical tool leading toward insight into the human condition. 

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