Two Rivers and The White Path
Updated: Jun 11, 2018
From River Of Fire River Of Water Taitetsu Unno
Attributed to Shan-tao, the Pure Land master of seventh-century China, it captures the existential predicament in which one is made to awaken the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta).
In the parable, a traveler is journeying through an unknown and dangerous wilderness. Soon he is pursued by bandits and wild beasts, and he races to get away from them. Running westward, he eventually comes to a river divided into two, separated by a narrow white path. The white path is only a few inches wide and runs from the near shore to the far shore.
On one side of the path the river, filled with leaping flames that reach twenty feet into the air; on the other, the deep river has a powerful current that overflows with dangerous waves.
Even though the white path is the only possibility of escape across the perilous river, it is not an alternative because of lapping fire and waves.
Filled with fear, the traveler cannot go forward, cannot go back, and cannot stand still. In the words of Shan-tao, he faces “three kinds of imminent death.”
Just at that time, the desperate traveler hears a calming voice right behind him on the eastern shore, urging him to go forward on the white path: “Go forth without fear; no danger exists. But if you remain, you will surely die!”
Just then, he hears a beckoning call from the far shore: ”Come just as you are with singleness of heart. Do not fear the flames and waves; I shall protect you!”
Shan-tao tells us that the river of fire connotes anger; the river of water, greed. The two joined together make an odd picture, but they illustrate how the overflowing abundance of greed and anger can fill our lives. In our greed we want to make life move according to our desires. When we do not get our way, our passions are stifled and anger erupts.
The eastern shore, the side where the traveler encountered his dilemma, is the world of delusion-samsara. The western shore is the Other Shore of enlightenment-nirvana. While this side is the defiled land, the far side is known as the Pure Land.
Connecting the two is a narrow, white path. The tenuousness of the path shows the weakness of human aspiration to break through self-delusion into liberation and freedom.
The pursuing bandits represent enticing teachings that abound in our
world, all promising immediate material benefits and psychological relief. They may provide temporary answers but not true liberation.
The wild beasts manifest instinctual passions that keep us bound to this shore of delusion. Both pull us away from moving forward on the path.
The voice of encouragement from the eastern shore is that of the historical Buddha, the teachings of Sakyamuni; the beckoning call from the western shore comes from the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, Amida.
As one heeds the urging of Sakyamuni, the aspiration to move forward becomes pure and powerful. And as one embodies the call of Amida, it becomes single-minded and unshakable. This aspiration for supreme enlightenment is none other than the white path, now expanded and made safe, now an open passage through the flames of
anger and waves of greed.
But even though the first step has been taken on the path, the threat is not over. As the traveler moves forward, the bandits make enticing promises and the beasts offer all kinds of temptations, attempting to call him back to this shore of delusion. But, sustained by the words of Sakyamuni and the call of Amida, the traveler does not hesitate, moves forward, and reaches the Other shore safely into the waiting arms of a good friend (kalyanamitra) who is none other than Amida Buddha.