Friday, April 18, 2008

Walking on the Water

Walking on the Water
When the Buddha left Pataliputta (now Patna) during his last journey, he had to cross the Ganges in order to get to Vesali. Today the river at this point is nearly a kilometer wide and it probably just as wide in ancient times too. The townspeople who had come to bid him goodbye began walking up and down along the bank of the river looking for a ferry or a boat to use to cross the river. Some even began binding reeds together in an attempt to make rafts. Then, according to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, ‘as quickly as a strong man might stretch out his arm and draw it back again, the Buddha and his monks vanished from this bank and reappeared on the other bank of the Ganges' (D.II,89). Those who believe in an essential unity between Buddhism and Christianity often site this incident as being a parallel to the story about Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6,45-52). The comparison is, however, a spurious one. Whoever wrote the story about Jesus walking on the water believed it to be literally true and presented it as proof of his divinity. Many Christians still accept it as such. The story about the Buddha crossing the Ganges does not have him walking on the surface of the river but rather disappearing from one place and reappearing in on another. In the Christian story Jesus walks on the water while his disciples look on in amazement, emphasizing his divinity and their limited humanness. In the Buddhist story both the Buddha and his disciples disappear and reappear, suggesting their equality, at least as far as psychic abilities are concerned. But more importantly, the Buddhist story is not meant to be taken literally, although some people may well have done so. It is an example of a didactic embellishment - a story meant to hold the attention and then make an important point - a literary device often used in the Pali Tipitaka and other Indian literature. The point being made with this story is that no matter how difficult attaining enlightenment may seem, the fact that others have done it should give us the encouragement and determination to attain it too. This is confirmed by what happens at the end of the story. The Buddha looks back across the river, sees the people still running up and down along the river bank and says: ‘When they want to cross the ocean, the lake or a pond, people build a bridge or make a raft but the wise have already crossed over.’

I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.
Albert Camus

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