MN 22 is a fascinating text for many reasons. It tells the story of the truly monumental smack-down the Buddha delivers to Ariṭṭha the vulture trapper, who misrepresented the teachings to argue that having sex was no obstacle to spiritual practice.
Perhaps the most widely known passage is the famous simile of the raft. Here, for your edification and enjoyment, is my translation:
“Suppose there was a person travelling along the road. They’d see a large deluge, whose near shore was dubious and perilous, while the far shore was a sanctuary free of peril. But there was no ferryboat or bridge for crossing over. They’d think:
‘Why don’t I gather grass, sticks, branches, and leaves and make a raft? Riding on the raft, and paddling with my hands and feet, I can safely reach the far shore.’
And so they’d do exactly that. And when they’d crossed over to the far shore, they’d think:
‘This raft was very helpful to me. Riding on the raft, and paddling with my hands and feet, I have safely crossed over to the far shore. Why don’t I hoist it on my head or pick it up on my shoulder and go wherever I want?’
What do you think, mendicants? Would that person be doing what should be done with that raft?”
“And what, mendicants, should that person do with the raft? When they’d crossed over they should think:
‘This raft was very helpful to me. … Why don’t I beach it on dry land or set it adrift on the water and go wherever I want?’
That’s what that person should do with the raft.
In the same way, I have taught how the teaching is similar to a raft: it’s for crossing over, not for holding on.
By understanding the simile of the raft, you will even give up the teachings, let alone what is against the teachings.
Most of this translation is straightforward, but the last sentence, which advocates giving up even “dhammas”, is not easy to make out. The problem is, of course, that dhamma has so many meanings. Taken in isolation, it’s impossible to say what exactly is meant here. Various translators approach this is different ways.
- Ven Bodhi, citing the commentary, has “states”.
- Ven Thanissaro avoids the issue by keeping “Dhammas”.
- Chalmers has good and bad “things”.
- Horner, referring to the commentary, has right and wrong “mental objects”.
- Nyanamoli’s draft translation had “true ideas” and “untrue ideas”. He was endeavoring to use “true idea” everywhere for dhamma. The fact that here it is in lower case suggests he understood it in the sense of “mental phenomena or qualities” rather than “teachings”.
Thus the bulk of the translators have taken dhammā here in the sense of “mental qualities, mental phenomena”. This is following the commentary, which, however, defines it rather more precisely as regarding attachment to advanced meditation states of samatha and vipassanā. This is contrasted with the bad example of Ariṭṭha, who was attached to adhamma in the sense of vulgar practices, i.e. sex.
The commentary cites two passages as examples of this. The letting go of states of samatha is said to be taught in MN 66; that’s not quite what the sutta is getting at, but I’ll leave that for you to check out.
The letting go of vipassanā is found in MN 38. This is especially interesting, as it is apparently the only other place in the suttas where the simile of the raft is mentioned directly. Let’s detour to have a look at that first.
In MN 38, the Buddha interrogates the mendicants in the context of dependent origination, asking whether they have doubts and whether they have seen with right wisdom. These terms indicate that the mendicants are, at least, stream-enterers, so the commentary is incorrect in describing this as vipassanā. That’s not a great start. But even more cogently, the thing that the mendicants are said to not attach to is not “states of vipassanā meditation”, but diṭṭhi, view.
This aligns with the original context of MN 22, where the whole sutta is about views, and the bad consequences of acting out of wrong views.
There is, of course, somewhat of an ambiguity here. Normally, a “view” is merely a belief or an opinion, which may or may not be well grounded. But the view of a stream-enterer is the right view of the noble eightfold path, and it arises because of directly seeing the truth for what it is. That doesn’t mean it’s not a view. It means it’s not just a view: it’s a view that’s grounded on experience of reality.
The suttas has an ambivalence around this, as sometimes views are said to be developed, other times abandoned; but if we understand the context it’s not too confusing. As a “view”, it is essentially an opinion formed on the basis of the teaching. Luckily for us, the Buddha’s teaching happens to be correct, so when we truly see reality, the view is confirmed. Thus not only does “view” skirt the boundary between “opinion” and “vision”, dhamma skirts the boundary between “teaching” and “true principle, how the world really is”. (It was, in fact, to capture this that Nyanamoli adopted “true idea”.)
In any case, the take-home lesson is this: MN 38, when referring to the simile of the raft, specifically states it is for letting go of “views”, not meditation states.
This is supported by the use of dhamma and adhamma throughout the suttas. Given how variably dhamma is used, it seems most translators have been content to accept that any of these meanings could apply here. However, a search of the canon reveals that the pair of dhamma and adhamma is almost always used in the sense of “teachings” and “what is not the teachings” (or “what is against the teachings” or “wrong teachings”). (AN 10.37, AN 4.22, AN 2.104, etc.)
(Apart from this, the only significant context we find dhamma/adhamma is in phrases using adhammacariya, visamacariya, “unrighteous conduct, unethical conduct”, which is obviously not the case here.)
Of course, it’s always possible that this context is simply an unusual usage. But there’s no reason why it should be, as the sense of “teachings” makes perfect sense.
It is true that dhamma in the sense of “teaching” is usually singular, and I guess this may have contributed to the confusion here. However, this is by no means always the case. Indeed, earlier in this very sutta, dhammā in plural is repeatedly used in the sense of “teachings”, eg:
Take a foolish person who learns the teaching—statements, songs, discussions, verses, inspired sayings, legends, stories of past lives, amazing stories, and analyses. But they don’t examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, and so don’t come to a reflective acceptance of them.
Given that the sense is quite straightforward, the question must arise as to why did the commentaries go to such lengths to insert an unrelated meaning? In understanding exegesis, it is helpful to understand the perspective of the exegete.
The commentaries stem from a tradition that had apparently moved far from the practice of meditation in favor of preservation of the texts. Perhaps it was too controversial for them to say that the teachings must ultimately be let go of, and better to point out the fallacies implicit in meditation practice.
There is always a tension between doctrine and experience, and the guardians of doctrinal orthodoxy always nurture a certain suspicion of meditative experience. This is not unreasonable: the plain fact is that meditators frequently misunderstand or misrepresent their experience, and a degree of skepticism, tempering reports of experience with the understanding of the text, is essential.
While this is understandable, it seems that here the tendency went too far, deflecting attention from the limitations of textual knowledge to the limits of meditation experience. As so often, the commentarial views are embodied in the translations, and these always need to be carefully and critically examined. Hopefully this is one small step to rectifying this.