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Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
Chapter 9: The Ferryman

Abstract:  Insight into the characteristics of an enlightened person is given with the character development of Vasudeva.

I. (The ferryman was right—Siddhartha comes back.)  Learning from the river involves process-learning, not product-learning.
    A. Consider the distinction between propositional knowledge and practical knowledge. (E.g., Zeno's Paradox of "Achilles and the Tortoise" vs. the actual motion of things.)

      1. Siddhartha's cleverness could prove Achilles can never pass the tortoise if time and space are infinitely divisible. Practically, of course, there is no question that Achilles can pass the tortoise.

      2. Remember when the Buddha had intuited that Siddhartha should beware of too much cleverness because Siddhartha "thought'" rather than immediately grasp the truth in things.

    B. The river's secret is a metaphor for life itself.

      1. "...the water continually flowed and flowed and yet was always there" [83A]. Contrast these common observations:

        a. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

        b. Heraclitus: "You cannot step twice into the same river for fresh waters are ever flowing upon you."

      2. In philosophy, the problem suggested here is the general ontological problem of permanence vs. change.

        a. Is there anything in life that never changes? 

        b. How does language work? How do we name things rightly? Suppose a new engine goes in a car and, over the years  the hood, front fenders, tires, drive shaft, and so forth and each are in turn replaced.  At what point is the car a different car? (Suppose another car is made out of the discarded parts. When is the "new" car  the "old" car?).

        c. The problem of personal identity is a similar problem.  Are you the same person you were yesterday? Are you the same person you were as a baby? Somehow you were that person, but are not now, yet there seems to be a persistent "you" that changes over time.

        d.  How do we know the river is the same river? How does "knowledge" work here? Consider the conditional statement:

        "If I strike this match, the match lights." 

        However, I can never strike the same match twice, so how could I possibly know it will light?  Can the match being referred to in the antecedent be the same match being referred to in the consequent of the conditional? (The first referent is unstruck and unlit—unlike the referent in the consequent).

      3. The answer to the question of permanence is that the general form of the thing is abstracted by active intellect.

        a. logos:  blueprint, word, form, pattern, nature—(as distinguished from the material substance).

        b. I.e., there are laws of change—the abstracted features of things. Consider the essence of what it is to be a "dog." (Do all dogs bark, have four legs, a tail, etc.?)

        Consider, as well, what it is to be your personal essence (your logos, your character; your Buddha nature; how you are disposed to behave in circumstances x, y, and z). 

        This is your essence, your soul. Your "stamp" is revealed more by how you do things than what things you do.

II. Some general characteristics of Vasudeva suggest why he is a holy man.

    A. Vasudeva is non-judgmental and perceptive.  Siddhartha wishes to be an assistant or an apprentice.  (Why?  Siddhartha's rationalization is "I must learn how to handle the boat [84B].)

      1. In other words, Siddhartha is saying, "I must learn how to handle my life."

      2. Vasudeva looks not at what is said but why a person says what is said.  Vasudeva is non-judgmental.

    B. Vasudeva accepts that everything is what it should be—e.g., " not every life, every work fine?" [83D].

      1. Our unhappiness comes when we wish for things to be different from what they are; we hope for change.

      2. Vasudeva recognizes the wisdom of nature—literally, without our interference, things are just fine and are as they should be. (Consider the psychological conception of being an "enabler" for someone else's addiction.  An "enabler" in this sense is someone who unintentionally helps support a bad habit by protecting or making excuses for the other person.)

      3. When we wish to be different, oftentimes, we are at odds with what we are—by rejecting self, we choose our unhappiness. Hence, there is an opportunity cost when we try to become or to be somebody. (When we seek to improve ourselves, are we affirming that what we are is inadequate?)

      4. Again, this is the idea echoed by many writers:  Be careful who you pretend to be for that you will surely become.  (I.e., something different from what you are, your Buddha-nature.)

      5. Remember in fairy stories involving three wishes—the third wish is often used to reject the other two so that the one can go back to where one was before the wishes appeared..

    C.  The consequential characteristic of the foregoing is that Vasudeva could listen—he did not praise or blame or judge.

      1. He did not advise—for things are what they are (and, indeed, in a sense, "should be"). ("Consider the related idea that there but for the grace or God go I.").

      2. So in talking to Vasudeva, one is, in effect, talking to oneself.

      3. For Vasudeva, nothing is, in itself, either good or bad, except thinking which makes it so.
III. The River:  "The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it" [86A].
    A. The river listens and, of course, does not judge (i.e., it is an objective reference—there is no ego to be heard).

      1. Our hopes, fears, expectations are epiphenomenona or illusions. Consider a child afraid of the dark on a beautiful moonlit night. Consider seeing a dog, as it is, without considering memories of being attacked in the past.

      2. We often become so concerned about our own world that we no longer live in the intersubjective world.

    B. For some persons, the river is a hindrance [86C].

      1. What is a hindrance?  an obstacle? —something which has to be done which shouldn't have to be and takes more time than it is worth; an unnecessary impedance to an activity; or a delay of progress.

      2. Without hindrances, we should not act—life would be passive.  (Without hindrances, as soon as a thing is thought, it would be done.)

      3. In one sense, hindrances are to be welcomed since they are our opportunity to be.

      4. Or, to put it another way, there is no such thing as a hindrance or an obstacle except thinking which makes it that way.  Hindrances are optional.

        a. This is what holiness involves:  the recognition that there are no hindrances when one has no expectations. We do not expect things to be different from what they are. This is why Vasudeva did not advise—for things are what they are (or should be). 

        b. Most of us expect the world to be right for us—the world is impersonal just as we should be impersonal (i.e., we need not take events personally, anthropologically, or egotistically). 

        c. Each unexpected hindrance thwarts our purpose, but our purpose itself can be seen as a hindrance if it were not chosen.  In this sense, ordinary hindrances can themselves be seen as subpurposes or phases to the goal.

        d. No job is big or little, important or unimportant. Consider what is meant by the phrase, "It comes with the territory" when we do a job and encounter hindrance. 

    C. What Siddhartha learned from the river:  "...he learned from it how to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without judgment, without opinions" [87B].

    D.  There is no such thing as time—the river is everywhere at the same time.  (The basis of the Buddhist doctrine of sarvastuvada.)

      1. Because we see only part of the whole at one time, we think it takes more time to see another part. With the mind's eye, we can see the whole at one time.

      2. Discovering the properties of what kinds of things exist in the universe takes time—but the things we learn about already exist—all at the same time.

      3. Whether we are examining an object or whether we are examining our life, there is no past, present, or future. Time is relative to the individual's ego.  Consider the analogy:

      part is to whole as now is to your life process

        a. In getting out of our own subjective perspective we can see that there is an eternal now.

        b. My complete life is in no time; distance in time is considered to be verification.  (Consider time as you would space.)

          (1) To verify anything in the world takes time. E.g., consider "All ravens are black," "There is a chair next door," or gravity is a phenomenon..

           (2) The nature of a statement is that future truths are in a sense  true now. (E.g., "It will rain tomorrow" is true now even though we do not know it is true now and we need wait for verification.)  Put more clearly, "Truth is timeless."

           (3) You can "read" someone's whole life as you would a collage of that person. If you know the logos, you know the nature of that person. To understand what a person is, we have to understand all periods of that person's life. In other worlds, thinking back to an earlier time, we don't think of that person as being different from what that person is now; we think of that person at that age.

           (4) Hence the meaning of thoughts of Unity [94B]—we can see past, present, and future at the same time.

           (5) Without time, there is no sorrow, hope, fear, aspiration. 

    IV.  Kamala and her willful son. 

      A. She dies from snake-bite. 

      B. Seeing Siddhartha was just as good as Gotama—because Siddhartha is the Buddha.

        1. The Buddha is what the essence of a thing is.

        2. If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!" What you see on the road is not what you are. Everything has a Buddha-nature. She saw Siddhartha as he was, even though Siddhartha did not yet.

      C. Siddhartha felt the indestructibleness of life [93D]—the eternity of every moment. 

      Space is like time. Picture yourself on your way home. The street corner you pass is gone when you pass it, but it's still there from the standpoint of the unity of the whole. Consider it this way: it's there forever as one part of the whole.


    Karma Triyana Dharmachak-— H. E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, " Wisdom of Meditation."


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