The very first sutta in the enormous collection known as the Connected Discourses (Saṁyutta Nikāya) has a spirit being come to visit the Buddha and ask him how he “crossed the flood.” The Buddha replies with a beautiful metaphor on the kind of effort needed to progress on the path:
“By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.” (SN 1.1, tr. Bodhi)
This is a parallel to the famous simile given to the musician-monk Soṇa, to practice with the same balance of tension used in tuning the string of an instrument: neither too tight nor too loose.
Being a player of string instruments, one thing I might add to this famous simile is that the instrument needs to be tuned every time you pick it up, and in the case of some instruments, in between every song, or even in the middle of a long song. Adjusting our effort in Dharma practice likewise requires ongoing attunement to changing conditions.
To make matters worse (but also more fluid), I play fretless instruments—violin, bass, cümbüs, and lately cello—where the effort to play in tune goes down to the placing of every finger. The tiniest tilt of the finger one way or another, or fluctuation in moisture, finger pressure, or a host of other conditions and choices, affects the intonation. I’ll take the simile one step further and add that hitting the note spot on isn’t the only task, but paradoxically, making it sound good usually entails either vibrato—quickly shaking the note in and out of tune—or sliding in or out of the pitch. It’s imperative to play in tune (unless you’re Sonic Youth), but it doesn’t sound good unless intonation is a moment to moment, intimate, responsive, expressive activity.
In meditation, you can feel the truth of this. The effort that brings a balanced attention at the beginning of a meditation is often quite different from what is required in the middle or near the end. And when you’re cultivating specific kinds of energies, modulating effort, energy, and inner direction is really moment to moment. Interestingly, that flood metaphor—“neither stopping nor straining”—can also be translated as “neither standing nor swimming” (SN 1.1, tr. Sujato). Here we get the sense not just of a modulated effort, but modulated types of activity.
Elsewhere (MN 64), the Buddha talks about crossing a deep, swollen river like the Ganga, and how difficult it is for a feeble person to do so. He compares this to the difficulty a beginner would have in truly comprehending a deep Dharma like the emptiness of identity. I’ve crossed some deep, fast-running mountain streams while hiking as well as during floods, and it’s better to keep your feet on the ground than try to swim. It’s always best to cross at the ford—the wide, shallow part of the river—if you can get to it. The Jain counterpart to Buddhas, enlightened teachers, are called Tīrthaṅkara, “ford-makers.” Wise teachers not only teach you how to cross flooded rivers, but show you the safest place to do so.
There are four “floods” (Pāli: ogha):
- Sensuality (kāma)
- Existence & identity (bhava)
- Views (ditthi)
- Ignorance (avijjā)
Trying to get clear in relation to any of these it’s like trying to cross a very full river. They are hard to swim in, easy to get swept away by. So you move steadily, with balanced effort, staying as grounded as possible. Good advice.
When the water’s especially high—in the metaphor that would be when any of these floods are exacerbated by trauma or dangerous cultural conditions that give rise to unsafety and weak refuge—we might add in the Dharma advice on the road signs this week in California: “Turn around. Don’t drown.”
Stay safe out there, friends.