Buddhism as a vehicle

Buddhism is often misunderstood; those who investigate its ideas often look for a core set of beliefs to cling to. Just as other religions have gods, Buddhism is treated as having some essential truth to grasp. This makes Buddhism the same religion as western beliefs and philosophy.

However, the teachings of the Buddha are never meant to be taken as sacred. Buddhists see Buddhism not as a means to an end but as a vehicle. Often likened to a boat we use to cross a river to the other shore.

The Yana in Mahayana is the word for ‘vehicle’ in Buddhism. It refers not to the sacred word of a deity, but as a teaching method or practice to find Nirvana, or the putting out of desire.

A metaphor the Buddha uses in the Water Snake Sutta is the image of grasping a snake; improperly held, the snake can turn and bite you.

The vehicle or raft parable also appears in the Water Snake Sutta. Here, the Buddha discusses the importance of learning the dharma and the danger of clinging to views.

‘…the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go.’

Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation

The vital point is that once you have reached the other shore, you leave the boat behind.

It’s the same with any skill; reading art books and practising makes you better. But as you gain skills, you can leave the beginner lessons behind.

I say all this because people cling to Buddhism as if it has some profound truth or meaning. 

Those who believe they have grasped Buddhism’s essence fail to understand its teachings. Buddhism says there is no essence to anything, including the Buddha’s teachings.

Buddhism, above all else, is a practical philosophy focusing on our lived experience. It doesn’t hold to the idea of finding, and the bedrock of certainty, through belief.

Clinging to the idea of an essence to grasp leads to insecurity and suffering, as the Buddha taught.

Buddhism is not to blindly follow images, totems, teachings and teachers. The lessons of the Buddha are varied because he’s responding to different people. The Buddha tailors his teaching to the student. Some are novices, others lay people, some from other traditions, and others are well trod on the path of liberation.

Buddhism is not a set of ideas to cling to but a practice to help let go of the clinging neediness and attachments that cause us to suffer. To cling to Buddhism then is not to understand Buddhism; the goal is to be released from attachments.

The teaching of the Buddha is to liberate the world from suffering. When that happens, Buddhism will no longer be needed.

What’s being taught here by the Buddha is the danger of clinging to views, and having a wrong view of Buddhism. Such attachments result in further problems and suffering.

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