Week 34 Review: The Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path

This week has been tough.

I’ve been feeling down. I’ve been dwelling on how far short of my expectations I’ve fallen this month. I’ve been beating myself up for how I’m not following my resolutions well, which, of course, makes me less likely to follow the resolutions at all, which leads me to beat myself up some more. It’s a vicious cycle. In Buddhist teachings, I think this is what’s called “samsara.”

We went to the Dharma Service at the Buddhist Temple this morning. Sensei shared “The Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path.” Apparently it’s a story shared frequently in Jodo Shinshu temples, but since I’ve just started going, this is the first I’d heard it. It came at a good time for me.

The basic story goes like this:

One day a traveler was trying to cross to the Other Shore. The path to the Other Shore was about 4 or 5 inches wide and ran between two rivers. The river on the left was a river of water. The river on the right was a river of fire. As the traveler stood at the threshold of this crossing and considered his options, he found that there were fierce animals and bandits coming after him from where he’d come. He faced “Three Certain Deaths,” drowning in the water, burning in the fire, or being killed by fierce beasts and bandits if he chose to stay.

At this point, he heard a voice calling him from the Other Shore, urging him forward.

“Come just as you are,” it urged. “You will be fine if you just travel the White Path.”

He started walking carefully on the narrow path between the two rivers. About halfway across, with the fires lapping at his body to the right and the waves crashing against him from the left, he began to sway. He heard the voices of the beasts and bandits behind him.

“You’ll die if you continue on that path,” they said. “Come back, and we promise we won’t hurt you. We have your best interests at heart.”

But another voice rose above the calls of the beasts and bandits, back from where he came urging the traveler forward.

“Keep going!” it called. “Don’t listen to the beasts and bandits! You’re on the right path!”

The traveler continued on and eventually reached the Other Shore safely.

The voice from ahead is described as the voice of Amida, the spiritual Buddha and embodiment of the teachings. It is also described as an internal voice. Once the traveler internalizes the teachings, the voice pulling him forward comes from inside himself so it’s both the voice of Amida and an internal voice.

The voice from behind is the “external” voice, or the voice of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, rising above the voice of the ego to help the traveler leave behind the attachments that would hold him stuck at the point of Three Certain Deaths. This is the voice of the teachings that Shakyamuni left behind to help others find the path.

The bandits and beasts are well-meaning others, whether individuals and relationships in our lives that would hold us back or the “isms” and patterns of belief and behavior we’re holding onto but that no longer work for us.

I found an interpretation of the parable online that put the message succinctly:

To walk the white path seems at first like a lonely endeavor, but with the two voices, the external teacher and the internal aspiration, the traveler eventually reaches the land where all who surround him are friends.

While I’m disappointed with the way March has gone, and I feel disheartened when I consider April ahead of me, I’m going to do my best to hear the internal and the external voices that I know will help lead me towards generosity, patience, and compassion, both for myself and for those around me. I want to let those voices rise above the voices of the beasts and bandits (and my inner critic) who would have me stay stuck between two lands, afraid to move forward and also afraid to go back.

I want to focus again on the daily celebrations: My son dancing to the beat of my daughter’s metronome. My daughter imitating the language of Clutch, the street-wise mouse from the book Ragweed (the prequel to the Poppy series by Avi). The little kids in my daughter’s Dharma School class dressing up like shrimp and crabs and practicing their “ebi kani” dance for Hanamatsuri, the celebration of the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha.

The negative voices may keep me from feeling lonely, but they’ll also keep me from really connecting with anyone else and will keep me from feeling joy at the things around me.

I want to accept the suffering and loneliness so that I can also accept the joy and love that’s around me.

It always comes back to mindfulness, doesn’t it?

2 Replies to “Week 34 Review: The Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path”

  1. One of the things I always find interesting about this parable is that those holding the traveler back warn that he will die if he continues along the White path. Well, yes, but he will die even if he does not continue along the White path. That is inevitable. It is whether we choose to have our karma burned away and washed clean while we move forward or whether we choose to remain fettered to the wheel that matters on our way to the inevitable.

    For me, attempting to avoid duality and failing here, it is remaining within the Self, connected to my needs, and then moving toward connection with others that allows for remaining on the path to freedom. And with regard to mindfulness, another failing at expressing this without duality, is remembering that you can’t be paying attention to your feelings/desires while at the same time be worrying at your thoughts about those feelings/desires. It’s the worrying at those feelings/desires that is the suffering. Not the feelings/desires themselves.


    1. It’s the worrying at those feelings/desires that is the suffering. Not the feelings/desires themselves.

      This is the theme for my life right now.

      Thank you so much for your comment, Z.


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