Imagine that you need to cross a large body of water, like the Atlantic or the Pacific. You can choose to make this crossing in different ways. You can choose to cross on an airplane; you can choose to cross on a ship by sea you can even choose to drive and walk across. Some of these methods are faster and others will not work due to the laws of physics (we can’t drive across or walk across water). The point of taking the airplane or the boat to cross the body of water is so that you can get to where you are trying to go. The airplane and the boat are just mediums or tools that we use. Now imagine that when you arrived at the point you want to go, you pick up the boat or the airplane and continue dragging it around with you. I’m sure that a lot of you will find that strange, after crossing the water there is no more need for the airplane or boat.
This little thought experiment above is based on Buddha’s raft parable. Where a monk crosses a body of water by means of a raft and then instead of carrying it when he has crossed he leaves it at the shore and continues his journey unburned.
Religions, spiritual disciplines, philosophies etc. are all rafts. They were created to help people understand truth, to understand the nature of self and other, and to break through the illusions that we create for ourselves. They are tools to be used to better understand oneself. The problem arises when the religion or philosophy is treated as an end and not as a means. When we refuse to unburden ourselves when we have understood its lessons. Imagine needing to hammer a nail into a wall. After hammering the nail into the wall we should put the hammer away, not grip tighter onto the hammer and carry it with us all the time threatening to hammer everything with it because we are sure the hammer works. This unfortunately is how most people treat religion. They don’t understand that religion is a tool to find truth but instead think the tool itself is the truth.
All religions, faiths and philosophies are flawed, as they are creations of men and women. Whether you believe they are divinely inspired or not is irrelevant because divine ideas translated into human language and concepts loses its divinity. This is why Lau Tzu says “those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak”, Lau Tzu knows that when trying to put divine ideas into human language, the divine is lost. So those who truly know the divine, allow it to be expressed in silence. There are undoubtedly great gems of wisdom in some of the world’s major religions, lessons we can all take away and learn from. But on the other hand there also exists some truly abhorrent ideas that is far from something you would expect from a loving, compassionate creator. This is inevitable because they are books from their time and some of the bad ideas in these scriptures may have even been progressive for their time and place. It is our job to use these lessons as tools to better ourselves and not attach to it mindlessly.
The tool I have chosen to use to better my students and myself is Traditional Kung Fu & Tai Chi. For me, my training and my art is a tool that I use to understand myself. A question I get asked a lot is “which martial arts style is the best?” and I always give the same answer, it is not the style it is the stylist. It doesn’t matter if you know 1000 moves or 1. The student that trains and understands their path the best is the one who will go further along that path.
Let me leave you with a little story I heard a long time ago, I can’t remember where I heard it,
Once upon a time there was a young boy. On his first day of school the teacher said to the whole class, today we will learn to write the number 1. When you can write the number 1 properly we will move on to number 2. The whole class started writing the number one until they had it down correctly. The next day the teacher started writing the number 2. She went over to the young boy and noticed he was still writing number 1. The teacher said, no that was from yesterday do number 2 now. The little boy replied I will do number 2 when I can do number 1 properly, so the teacher left him to it.
Months went by and the boy was still writing the number 1. The teacher said to his parents, “Take your son home he is mentally slow”. The parents took him home and all the boy did was write number 1 all day. Years went by and the parents got fed up and decided to leave the boy in the forest, as he was nothing but a burden, so that’s what they did. Years and years went by and people would talk of seeing a young man in the forest writing the number 1 everywhere.
Decades later, the teacher who was now very old notices a longhaired, unwashed man walk into the school. The man says, “Teacher, I can now write the number 1 properly. Shall I begin the number 2 now? The shocked teacher couldn’t believe her eyes and says “show me number 1” The man draws the number 1 on the wall in the schoolyard and as he completes his drawing the wall splits in half.
Don’t attach to the idea of my way is better then your way or your way is incorrect. Just be diligent in the way you have chosen and one day you will split the wall of illusion in half.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!