The Middle Way: Buddha’s River Analogy, Embellished

The Buddha sometimes taught that the Middle Way is like boating on a river. I sat with it and wrote this embellished version:

From our boat on the river we can see both banks, the whole sky and the great expanse of water. One bank of the river is luxurious, dense with riches, a veritable jungle of eye candy and every sensory delight, comfort, entertainment, distraction, assurance of safety, financial security, recognition, fame, success and power. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, the siren sound draws us out of the boat and onto the shore, then into a jungle of opulence and indulgence. Luxuriant flowering vines wrap themselves around our limbs, and though they weigh us down we think we would feel naked without their beauty. A golden pyramid shimmers in the distance. The path leading to it is paved in glistening diamonds, and all along the way are champagne fountains and endless buffets of every sweet and savory taste we could ever want. Yet the pyramid never gets closer, the champagne never slacks our thirst and the food never fills our bellies. Instead we feel increasingly afraid of losing our way, losing the safety of the luxury we’ve come to depend on. How could we survive without all this? So we step carefully on the diamond path, hypnotized by the dazzling light that goes on and on, as the thirst and hunger become increasingly painful.

If we are lucky, we remember the river, the cool clear water, the nourishment and the clear expansive view the river gives us of life.

On the opposite bank of the river is a desert, a desolate landscape, arid, harsh, hot, and unyielding. When our boat gets into the shallows by this bank, we find ourselves stuck in the sand and have to disembark. We are grateful for all the clear instructive signs telling us the way to a distant oasis that glistens on the horizon. But as we travel this route, we see demands for more and more sacrifice. ‘Take off your shoes to better feel the burning sand,’ says one sign. ‘Take off your shirt to better feel the sun blistering your skin and the cold night air shivering you rigid and aching.’ Wherever there is food, there is also a sign saying ‘Don’t eat this.’ Wherever there is drink, there’s a sign saying ‘Poison.’ We are directed onto paths that are treacherous, layered with smoldering coals to toughen us up and test our resolve. We are directed to sleep, if sleep we must, on beds of nails. We are told to deny every urge, especially the urge to turn around, to give up our difficult journey to the oasis that never seems any closer. Along the way we see skeletons half buried in the sand. Other wanderers, some crawling with a crazed look in their eyes, challenge us to keep going. But, if we are lucky, we remember the river.

If we are lucky, we feel the pull of the open water, the easeful travel in a boat that supports our journey, and we turn around.

The Buddha says the Middle Way is the course of the river. He taught the importance of noticing when we are getting too close to either shore. Both shores can be seductive. Both shores promise fulfillment, one through having it all and one through denying it all. The Buddha lived the first two-plus decades of his life on one bank and then six years on the other before, at the age of 29, he realized there was a river running through the very center of his being, the very center of being itself.

This is the key message the Buddha felt compelled to share upon awakening: At any moment if we find ourselves stuck on one shore or the other, if we can just remember the river, then we find ourselves on the river again. For the river is within us. Our practice is being present enough to recognize the river and to chart our course along the Middle Way.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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