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Parable of the Two Rivers and a White Path, Part One
Protecting faith and defending against the danger of heretical views
In his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, Master Shandao concludes the exegesis of the Mind of Merit-aspiration and Rebirth-aspiration with the parable of The Two Rivers and a White Path. It is the only parable in the commentary and its importance lies in the fact that it clearly illustrates the meaning of the Three States of Mind. It is also important because it protects a Pure Land practitioner’s faith and serves as a defense against the danger of heretical views. He writes:
And, to all those wishing to be reborn in the Pure Land, I now offer a parable for the sake of those who would practice this way—as a protection for their faith, and a defense against the danger of heretical views. What is it?
The two rivers of water and fire
Following is the text of the parable:
Suppose there is a traveler intent upon a destination thousands of miles westward. Suddenly, he finds his way blocked by two rivers: the one stretching to the south is a river of fire, and the one to the north is a river of water. Each river is 100 steps across, bottomless in depth, and stretches endlessly to the horizon. At the point where the two rivers meet is a white path, four or five inches wide, which crosses the 100 paces to join the eastern and western banks. On the river of water are waves which surge and break across the path, while the flames on the river of fire leap up and scorch it. By turns, the water and fire threaten to utterly subsume the white path.
The traveler, upon reaching the river, sees that the place is desolate. But then a band of brigands and a pack of wild beasts appear. They find the traveler is alone, and immediately rush at him with murderous intent. In a panic he hurries westward, but sees that the great rivers block his path. Believing he is about to die, the traveler thinks to himself, “These rivers are endless, extending to the northern and southern horizons; but between them is an extremely narrow white path. Though it is but a short distance across, how shall I manage it? Without a doubt, I am fated to die this day!”
Intending to turn back, the traveler sees that the brigands will attempt to overtake him; intending to flee north or south, he sees that the wild beasts and venomous insects will approach to attack him. He tries to find a way to go westward, but is afraid of falling into the two rivers of fire and water.
A white path
At this moment, his fear and panic are beyond words. Reflecting further, he thinks, “If I turn back, I will die. If I remain here or press on across the river, I will also die. As it is the only way of survival, I have no choice but to attempt a crossing on the path and go forward. Since the path exists, it surely must be possible to walk across it!”
As he decides on this course, he suddenly hears a voice from the eastern bank: “O traveler, be firm in your resolution to cross over on the white path, and you will slip the clutches of death! But if you tarry where you are, you will immediately die!”
He then hears a voice from the western bank: “O traveler, with singleness of mind and right attention go forward at once; I will protect you! Do not be afraid of falling into the perils of fire or water!”
Thus, hearing one voice from the east exhorting him onward, and another from the west imploring him to cross, he rouses himself and strengthens his resolve to go straight forward on the white path. So he goes forward, letting no doubt or timidity find harbor in his mind.
But after a couple steps he hears the brigands on the eastern bank call out to him, saying: “O traveler, turn back! You cannot possibly cross over; the path is treacherous and you will surely die. Do not think that we mean you any harm!”
But the traveler does not retreat, nor does he give a backward glance. Single-mindedly, he hastens forward with his full attention on the path before him. Soon, he reaches the western bank and is free from every danger. There he is greeted by his good friends, and his rejoicing knows no bounds.
“With singleness of mind and right attention go forward at once”
The key sentence of this parable is: “With singleness of mind and right attention go forward at once; I will protect you! Do not be afraid of falling into the perils of fire or water!” It is spoken by a man on the western bank, who is actually Amitabha Buddha.
This statement is a version of Amitabha’s 18th Vow, the Fundamental Vow: If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the Ten Quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even 10 times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
“Go forward at once,” means aspiration, and refers to the “desire to be born in my land.”
“With singleness of mind” refers to the deep mind, and refers to “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me.”
“Right attention” means exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation, and refers to “call my name even 10 times.”
“You,” the practitioner or aspirant, refers to “sentient beings in the lands of the Ten Quarters.”
“Do not be afraid of falling into the perils of fire or water” means “to protect you, and embrace those who practice Amitabha-recitation with deep faith,” and refers to “should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.”
Master Shandao continues to explain the parable in detail in the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra. We shall explore this in my next article.