There are a couple of instances in the Pitaka, where the Buddha compares our moment to moment
experience (zoom out and you would call it “life”) with a swift river.
In some similes he compares our journey from Samsara to Nibbana as crossing a stream and trying to reach the safe haven of “the other shore”.
But in some of those instances where the Buddha employs this simile, he actually puts us right in the middle of the water, comparing our moment to moment experience with a person caught in the middle of a wild mountain river.
Imagine yourself being washed away in a swift river, floating midstream. The waves push you up only to pull you down again. You are pulled under water, you may get close to drowning in the water. You stretch your legs and arms, paddling like crazy in the wild water just to find a hold on something. Catch something, grasp something to keep up with the pushing and pulling currents.
According to this simile (see below) each moment of our lives resembles such a scary situation. Because, in a certain sense, reality as such means constant change and the onslaught of sense impressions share a similarity with the currents of a stream. In order to “stay alive” we need to keep our head/ego above the water.
We could not live one moment, if sounds, thoughts, pictures, feelings would come into being and simply continue unchanged – never changing again. If such a thing would happen, there would be no thinking, no moving, no perceiving possible: Everything would freeze in a moment and unknowing eternity would be the result. Now, that is not the case. We know very well, that life comes with death and a new car will one day break. But on a much more intimate level, not one moment stays the same.
Because all life is a question of measurement of this against that, of object and subject …the sounds you hear, the pictures you see, the body you feel. It all is like a cocoon or a huge meshed echo of sense impressons and mental activity creating the seemingly robustness of a river in which you swim, but on zooming close to that little fellow in the water who so aptly learnt to survive in the waves you will see – that he is frantically trying to keep himself above the water in each moment of being…(that is the strange feeling in the back of your mind, deeply buried, that longing for final contentment which makes you skydive, found a family, go on demonstrations, buy new cloth…makes you “live” through objects).
So you try to keep your head above the water because of the fear of reality, because of the fear of:
- impermanence which seems to take away our foundations – whatever water we just splashed against to pull ourselves upwards will give way and we loose ground again
- exhaustion because of this eternal fight for being, fight for existence in a very fleeting fluid environment causes discontentment, unsatisfactoriness on a very deep level
- and emptiness, as there seems to be no lasting hold – not in the seen, not in the heard, not in the felt, not even in the thought, the water arround us is so merciless natural.
Now on the rivers edges towards which such a flood victim is pushed there are some plants which he will try to hold onto in order to keep his head above the water:
At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said, “Monks,suppose there were a river, flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, and — holding on to both banks — kasa grasses, kusa grasses, reeds, birana grasses, & trees were growing. Then a man swept away by the current would grab hold of the kasa grasses, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. He would grab hold of the kusa grasses… the reeds… the birana grasses… the trees, but they would tear away, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.
“In the same way, there is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form (sense objects) to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form. That form tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster.
“He assumes feeling to be the self, or the self as possessing feeling – perception – preparations – consciousness, oror consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness. That consciousness tears away from him, and so from that cause he would come to disaster. AN 22.93
A little bit later In the same discourse the Buddha goes on giving a vipassana instruction to the monks. Like we saw in prior posts he finally asks the monks to simply note whatever there is (appears in their meditation) :
“Thus, monks, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment [noting] as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
The list of categories given here is not supposed to be a checklist. If you’d sit down and go through that list, trying “to think your way” through each of the phenomena in terms of “okay, let me see, what could a past feeling be” – doing it that way you would of course mean that you indulge in a number of feelings already NOT seeing them as they are but being hooked on them.
Instead “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near” stands for “all possible” contents or “whatever the content be, which arises” or “regardless what form, feeling etc. you perceive”. A method where the insight meditator would disregard the “content” of the sense current and regardless of what the water would push under his nose he would exert himself NOT to hold it. Because holding / resting in a strong current brings disaster. The insight meditators approach instead is to simply acknowledge / note and then disregard it.
Now lets continue with this beautiful simile. How could that poor guy get out of the water?
It is like the insight meditator had someone standing on the shore of the river seeing him being carried along by the swift current. The man on the river would shout: Look, there! Not far from you there is an elevation in the river bed. If you make it against the current and paddle up there you can stand with your feet! You won’t loose any further ground! So not excepting the pushing and shoving of the water but simply letting it float through his empty hands to push forward he dives into the water against the current parting it in his effort (getting better and better while fighting forward) and coming closer and closer to that elevation.
What is his biggest obstacle before reaching that first safe elevation in the river from which a sand bank leads to the shore where the other man gave him such a helpful advice? Well, think of all the piranhas (bad company) and logs in the water (disease and sudden death) which may appear and knock him out immediately. Or him losing faith in the message or the man on the river before even trying to do as he suggested. And don’t forget his exhaustion after swimming against the stream!
It is sure that the odds are way against him arriving on that safe little island in the water.
Lets suppose he makes it nevertheless. Now feeling that high ground with his toes for the first time he immediate feels relief (stream entry). Doubt whether the man on the shore really was trying to help him subsides, because now he knows that the instructions where correct. He can experience it as a fact. Would other people still floating in the water belief him? They may or may not, there is no way to “proof” it to them, that his feet feel ground. The only way for others would be to follow in his footsteps (paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi). But again, although the feet touch the ground, he is still 3/4 under water and the sense stream and “in-fluxes” (a-sava, lit. in-streamings) will push him in one or the other direction. However, as strong as they may push, he cannot lose that ground, he knows this spot now, tugging his toe into the ground.
Eventually, going further up on that elevation in the river bed he still can feel the tugging of water currents, but now the water reaches only up to his hips (once returner)! The karmic pushing and pulling lost its power over him and those unwholesome influxes (effluents) like greed and hatred which used to helplessly push him in their direction carrying him with them loose their grip on him. He still feels their slight nudging against his legs, but that does not mean that he has to follow them, the water falls back, the foundation under his feet is sound.
Next comes the moment where he completely leaves the water (anagami). Losing contact with the water will probably feel funny after all that time in the river.
Eventually he will reach the shore and be in the same position as the man who helped him escape in the first place. His skin will completely dry. No water left. The stream will be a remote detached event for him…still be there, but somehow completely separate. A feeling of aloofness, of ultimate freedom and release from the state of being trapped in the river currents.
In the Anguttaranikaya we find a very interesting simile with a similar context. Here the Buddha uses the river simile to show the different stages of the enlightened ones who successfully escape the full force of the water, the streaming sense experience delivering karmic ups and downs:
‘‘Cattārome, bhikkhave, puggalā santo saṃvijjamānā lokasmiṃ. Katame cattāro? Anusotagāmī puggalo, paṭisotagāmī puggalo, ṭhitatto puggalo, tiṇṇo pāraṅgato thale tiṭṭhati brāhmaṇo. etc.:
“These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.
“And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.
“And who is the individual who goes against the flow? There is the case where an individual doesn’t indulge in sensual passions and doesn’t do evil deeds. Even though it may be with pain, even though it may be with sorrow, even though he may be crying, his face in tears, he lives the holy life that is perfect & pure. This is called the individual who goes against the flow.
“And who is the individual who stands fast? There is the case where an individual, with the total ending of the first set of five fetters (Anagami), is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world. This is called the individual who stands fast.
“And who is the individual who has crossed over (Arahant), gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman? There is the case where an individual, through the ending of the mental fermentations, enters & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & made them manifest for himself right in the here & now. This is called the individual who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman. AN 4.5