Buddhism and the Parable of the Two Rivers


Since this week is the Japanese-Buddhist holiday of Ohigan (lit. “other shore” お彼岸), I wanted to share a famous parable in the “Pure Land” Buddhist tradition, written by a 7th century Chinese monk named Shan-dao (善導 613-681).  This is usually called the Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path.  You can find translations of it here and here among other places.  This is a translation by the late Rev. Hisao Inagaki:

Suppose a man is traveling a hundred thousand li [approx. 500 feet] toward the west. On the way, he suddenly comes upon two rivers: one is a river of fire that extends southward, and the other is a river of water that extends northward. The two rivers are each a hundred paces wide and unfathomably deep, extending endlessly to the north and south. Where they meet, there is a white path, four or five inches wide. This path is a hundred paces long from the east bank to the west. The waves of the water splash and the flames of the fire burn the path. The waves and flames alternate without ceasing.

This traveler has already journeyed far into the open plain where there is no one to be found. Suddenly, there appear many bandits and vicious beasts. Seeing him alone, they approach competing with each other to kill him. Afraid of death, he at once runs to the west. When he suddenly sees this great river, he says to himself, “This river extends endlessly to the south and to the north. I see a white path in the middle, but it is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are close to each other, how can I get across? Undoubtedly, I shall die this day. When I turn round to return, I see bandits and vicious beasts coming closer and closer. If I try to run toward the south or north, I see vicious beasts and poisonous insects vie with each other to attack me. If I seek the path to the west, I will certainly fall into one of the two rivers of water and fire.

His horror at this moment is beyond expression. So he thinks to himself, “If I turn back now, I shall die; if I stay, I shall die; if I go forward, I shall die, too. Since I cannot escape death in any way, I would rather follow this path. Because there is a path, it must be possible to cross the rivers.”

When this thought occurs to him, he suddenly hears a voice from the eastern bank urging him, “Take this path with firm resolution. There is no danger of death. If you stay there, you will die.” Again, he hears another voice from the western bank calling to him, “Come at once single-heartedly with right mindfulness. I will protect you. Do not fear that you may fall into the calamities of water or fire.” Since the traveler hears this voice urging him from the bank and the calling from the other, he resolutely, body and soul, takes the path and proceeds at once without doubt or apprehension.

As he takes a step or two, he hears the voices of the bandits on the eastern bank, “Come back! That path is treacherous. You cannot cross it. Undoubtedly, you are sure to die. We have no evil intentions in pursuing you.” Though hearing the calling voices, this person does not even look back. As he proceeds straight on this path with singleness of heart, he, in no time, reaches the western bank and is now free from all danger. There he meets his good friend, and his joy knows no end. This is the parable.

Commentaries on this parable are pretty consistent in that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, represents the voice on this shore urging the man to cross via the white path, while the voice on the other side is Amitabha Buddha inviting the man to cross to safety.  The monsters, bandits and such are the hassles of life, while the river of fire represents rage, anger, aversion, and the turbulent waters represent desire, craving, or some variations thereof.

But for me, there’s even more to this parable.  Buddhism, across all sects, frequently uses the analogy, originally from an ancient sutra called the Sutta of the Simile of the Water Snake, of a raft crossing one short to another.  The Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) are the raft, this shore represents our mundane existence and all the strife, frustrations and calamities that come with it.  The other shore represents the peace of mind and contentment that come with Enlightenment (or even just following the Buddhist path in a lesser sense).

Further, the Parable of the Two Rivers seems to conflate the Other Shore with the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.  Is the Pure Land just a metaphor for awakening, and if so, does Amitabha Buddha represent the Dharma itself?  Or, is being reborn in the Pure Land essentially the same as reaching Enlightenment (by virtue of the Pure Land being so conducive to the path)?  Or maybe both?

This and many more thoughts during the Ohigan season… 🙂

Namo Shakyamuni Buddha
Namo Amitabha Buddha

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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