How spiritual teachings work

Buddha’s raft

The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft that takes you from the shore of suffering (samsara) across the river to the shore of enlightenment (nirvana). When you get to the land on the other side, you do not carry the raft around with you – the raft would actually be an impediment on land.

The teachings are therefore provisional constructs and concepts and are not true in themselves. Ultimately we can let go of attachment both to the teaching and teacher once it has done its work.

If we fall in love with the teaching or teacher, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can serve as a useful and positive motivation force, keeping our search and inquiry strong through both good and bad times, and may well continue after a genuine enlightenment. However I have often seen how the attachment to (and belief in) a teaching or teacher can impede a genuine realisation, as it can restrict our ability to freely inquire and see things as they really are.

‘Use a thorn to remove a thorn, then throw them both away’

In this Hindu saying, a thorn represents a concept that gives rise to suffering when it pierces our skin. The teachings are another concept/thorn that you can use to remove the first thorn from your body. However you must throw the teaching away too when it’s work is done, otherwise it simply becomes a thorn in your side that binds you.

Ramana Maharshi used to speak of his teachings as being like a wooden stick used to prod the burning carcass in the funeral pyre. Once the teaching has done its job of ‘burning the ego (sense of being a separate doer)’, the stick is also pushed into the fire and it too burns away.

‘Eventually, all that one has learnt will have to be forgotten’
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Kill the Buddha
There is a famous Zen teaching: “If you see Buddha on the path, kill him”. Don’t even let Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings get in the way. Let go of all concepts and liberation is there as it always has been.
This idea is similarly indicated in Hindu teachings such as in the Yoga Vasistha:
‘When you realise that which is indicated by the words, then naturally you will abandon the jugglery of words’
Yoga Vasistha
Expedient Means
In Mahayana Buddhism the term ‘expedient means’ (Sanskrit: upaya) is used to signify that the best teaching is the one that produces the result – ie. enlightenment. What is good for one aspirant may not be good for another, depending on where they each are. This is also why various teachings can appear contradictory and may not be true in themselves. The point is that the teachings are not necessarily true, but as long as they work that’s what matters.
Some of my analogies and thoughts on how teachings work
  • The teachings are not themselves ultimately true. They are just words. But like a finger pointing to the moon, they  point to something greater than themselves. 
  • Teachings use words and concepts to point to or indicate that which is beyond all words and concepts.
  • The teachings are like a virus. Once you have heard them, they get to work within you, chipping away at false beliefs and in doing so the Truth is revealed.
  • Like when matter and anti-matter collide, the teachings destroy false notions and then when its work is done, the teaching also self-destructs.
  • We think we chose to read or hear the teachings and apply them. When we understand the teachings more fully, we realised that the teachings came to us, they were a gift to us, that they chose us, and they work their magic on us.
  • If you cling to words of the teachings, it is a sure indicator you have not understood what they are pointing to. Eventually you have to go beyond the teachings. Excessive clinging to notions such as Absolute Consciousness or ‘You are the Witness’ or overly complicated metaphysics is a sure sign of not seeing the essence of what is being pointed to.
  • The teachings are like a recipe – you follow the instructions and get the results. Until the food is made, you treasure the recipe for it is the gateway to your meal. Note that the cooked meal looks nothing like the recipe and you can throw away the recipe once you have mastered the cooking and are eating the meal. However, please don’t worship the recipe, please don’t (just) discuss recipes endlessly with your friends,  and please don’t forget to do what it says!

14 thoughts on “How spiritual teachings work

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