Parable of the White Path

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River of Fire and Water
River of Fire and Water

The Parable
of the White Path
with commentary by Shan-tao
written in the 7th century, China

I  wish to say to all aspirants for spiritual rebirth: I will now present a parable for the practicers in order to protect their faith and to guard it against attacks by those who have wrong and unauthentic views. What is the parable?

Suppose a man is traveling a hundred thousand miles toward the west. On the way, he suddenly comes upon two rivers: one is a river of fire that extends southward, and the other is a river of water that extends northward. The two rivers are each a hundred paces wide and unfathomably deep, extending endlessly to the north and south. Where they meet, there is a white path, four or five inches wide. This path is a hundred paces long from the east bank to the west. The waves of the water splash and the flames of the fire burn the path; the waves and flames alternate without ceasing.

This traveler has already journeyed far into the open plain where there is no one to be found. Suddenly, there appear many bandits and vicious beasts. Seeing him alone, they approach, competing with each other to kill him. Afraid of death, he at once runs to the west. When he suddenly sees this great river, he says to himself, "This river extends endlessly to the south and to the north. I see a white path in the middle, but it is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are close to each other, how can I get across? Undoubtedly, I shall die this day. When I turn round to return, I see bandits
and vicious beasts coming closer and closer. If I try to run toward the south or north, I see vicious beasts and poisonous insects vie with each other to attack me. If I seek the path to the west, I will certainly fall into one of the two rivers of water and fire.

His horror at this moment is beyond expression. So he thinks to himself, "If I turn back now, I shall die; if I stay, I shall die; if I go forward, I shall die, too. Since I cannot escape death in any way, I would rather follow this path. Because there is a path, it must be possible to cross the rivers."

When this thought occurs to him, he suddenly hears a voice from the eastern bank urging him, "Take this path with firm resolution. There is no danger of death. If you stay there, you will die." Again, he hears another voice from the western bank calling to him, "Come at once single-heartedly with right mindfulness. I will protect you. Do not fear that you may fall into the calamities of water or fire." Since the traveler hears this voice urging him from the bank and the calling from the other, he resolutely, body and soul, takes the path and proceeds at once without doubt or apprehension.

As he takes a step or two, he hears the voices of the bandits on the eastern bank, "Come back! That path is treacherous. You cannot cross it. Undoubtedly, you are sure to die. We have no evil intentions in pursuing you." Though hearing the calling voices, this person does not even look back. As he proceeds straight on this path with singleness of heart, he, in no time, reaches the western bank and is now free from all danger. There he meets his good friend, and his joy knows no end. This is the parable.


The meaning of the parable is as follows. 'The eastern bank' is the burning house of this mundane world. 'The western bank' represents the Pure Land or Nirvana. The 'Bandits and vicious beasts calling with feigned friendship' refer to sentient beings' six sense-organs and the five aggregates by which we engage the life experience. 'The open plain where there is no one to be found' refers to always associating with evil friends without having a chance to meet a true good teacher. 'The two rivers of water and fire' describes sentient beings' greed and lust which are like water and their anger and hatred which are like fire. 'The white path, ‘four or five inches wide,' between the raging rivers symbolizes the Middle Way, which also demonstrates that the hope for spiritual rebirth and renewal arises from within sentient beings blind passions of greed and anger. Since greed and anger are intense, they are compared to the water and fire. Since the wholesome mind is subtle, it is compared to a white path. Further, 'waves always splash the path' describes that greed always arises and taints one's wholesome mind. 'Flames always burn the path' describes our foolish nature, that anger and hatred even burn those who travel the spiritual path.

'This man at once takes the path westward' shows that he, in one thought moment, proceeds westward by simply letting go of his self-power attitude and practices. 'Hearing a voice from the eastern bank urging him to proceed, he immediately takes the path to the west' shows that even though Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) is already dead and people cannot see him, his teaching (dharma) still exists, which can be followed; the teaching is compared to the voice. 'As he takes a step or two, bandits call him to return' shows that people of different understandings, different practices and wrong views confuse him with their false views, saying, "You will commit
evil karma and fall back from the Path." 'There is a man on the western bank calling to him' refers to the living reality of Amida Buddha and the Primal Vow.

"In no time he reaches the western bank and rejoices at seeing his good friend" shows that the sentient beings who have long been sinking in the state of suffering and being deluded and bound by their own negative karma, from which they cannot set themselves free, are now urged by Shakyamuni to proceed to the west and also summoned by Amida's compassion and love; faithfully heeding the calls of wisdom and compassion from the earthly sage (Shakyamuni) and the living reality of compassion (Amida), they take the path of the Primal Vow with constant mindfulness while unafraid of the two rivers of water and fire; after their physical death, they will be spiritually reborn in the Pure Land, where they will see and experience reality-as-it-is with boundless joy.

Namu Amida Butsu!