Mar 5, 2021
Martin Goodson

What is the Way and what isn't.

What is the Way?

The subtle difference between walking 'The Way' and walking 'My' Way.



We talk of the Buddha’s Way. Indeed the word ‘Mahayana’ itself means ‘the Great Way’. And we have a quote by Master Sosan, the third Chinese patriarch, from his poem On Faith in the Heart. It begins:

 “The Great Way is not difficult; it merely avoids picking and choosing”

 So this term ‘the Way’, connoting a journey, features heavily in Buddhism and goes right back to the Buddha’s own parable of the raft – a famous parable found in the Pali Canon:

A man is caught on one side of a raging torrent and there’s no way across the river. There’s no bridge, no boat, no ferry and no ford. So how is he going to get out of danger on this side and over to the far side where there is safety?

The Buddha explained to his monks that the man gathers branches, twigs, vines and leaves and straps them together to make a raft which he then lays down onto that river and using his hands and feet he paddles over to the other side.

Then the Buddha asks his monks:

“Having gone over to the other side, what would you think if such a one picked up that raft, put it on his back thinking to himself:  ‘This raft has been very useful. I’m going to carry it across dry land on my back.’ Would that be a sensible thing to do?”

And the monks all replied:  “No, Lord, it would not be a sensible thing to do”.

 So the Buddha asked the rhetorical question:

“What should such a one do? Well, he should lay it down gratefully because after all it has carried him across, and he should continue on his way unencumbered”.

“And so it is with my teachings, O monks. My teachings too are like a raft. They are for crossing over. They are not for seizing hold of.”

Life is a journey from cradle to grave so there is this sense of going places. For our practice the Buddha prescribes a particular way of walking. This is why it’s so important for us, but it’s easy to get confused as well because if I am undergoing a journey then I think it’s ME who must decide where I’m going.  I conceive an ambition and start thinking:

“Right! I’m going to meditate and meditate until I attain full and perfect enlightenment”.

There’s an old Chinese story that demonstrates why this is wrong.  A young monk with such an ambition enters a training monastery. In training monasteries the monks are very busy. They don’t sit all day in meditation. However the new monk wanted to meditate, meditate, meditate. In every spare moment he would find a quiet corner and sit himself down to meditate, but always with the idea that he was going to get somewhere – that he was going to attain Buddhahood. The old abbot saw his student doing this and realised that he needed to do something about it. So one day when the abbot saw him sitting in a corner, deep in meditation, he went over and sat down beside him. Of course if you’re a young monk and your master comes and sits next to you it’s very difficult to ignore him. The master reached out and picked up a piece of tile. Then he took his sleeve and started polishing it. In the end, the young monk couldn’t contain himself any longer. He said:

 “Master, what are you doing with that tile?”.

The master said:  “I’m polishing it because I want to make a mirror”.

In the old days, of course, if you wanted a mirror you took a piece of metal and polished it and after a lot of polishing it would become clear and it would shine.

The monk said:

 “But master, it’s a tile. It doesn’t matter how much you polish it. It’s never going to become a mirror.”

 And the master replied:

 “In the same way, all this meditation, meditation, meditation - the way you’re doing it - will not make a Buddha out of a clod of earth like you.” Afterwards the young monk re-thought what he was doing and realised that his intention was not quite correct even though he was going through the right motions.  Meditation is a very important part of our practice - not just sitting but in all activities. Nonetheless if the intention behind the meditation isn’t right, then it can go awry. In fact it can even become an obstacle.

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