Reflections on the Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Buddhism is rich with parables and stories used to communicate or express the teachings. One of the most famous parables, is the parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path, by Chinese Pure Land Master Shan-tao, or Zendo in Japanese. Shan-tao composed a most graphic and powerful parable, based on his own spiritual existential experience. The parable goes as follows:

A traveler is heading west, when from behind he is pursued by bandits and wild beasts. The traveler flees for his life, but runs into a dead end. He finds before him a strange river that flows from the north to the south. Directly in front of him is a narrow white path that crosses the river. The river to the north is a river of water, with high waves seemingly too rough to cross. To the south, the river is not water, but is a river of fire. Flames blaze and leap high in the river of fire. Truly it is impossible to cross such a river of fire. In between these two rivers lies a narrow white path, merely inches wide. The flames of fire and the waves of the river lap over the narrow white path. The traveler is trapped. He cannot go back, as surely he will die by the bandits or wild beasts. He cannot go to the left around the river of fire, or to the right around the river of water. He could go forward, but the path is so narrow, he fears he cannot make it. But behind him he hears an encouraging voice urging him to go forward. From the other shore, he hears another voice saying “Come, I will protect you.” And so the traveler begins to step forward, on the narrow white path, reaching the other shore being welcomed by good friends.

I think that Shan-tao composed this parable based on his own spiritual dilemma. He himself felt trapped, unable to go back, go left, go right, or go forward. This parable expresses the feeling of someone who has fallen into a deep, dark hole, like a black hole, where everything seems bleak and desperate. I think anyone can fall into this kind of state. Maybe you yourself have already experienced this state of utter despair, of not knowing which direction to go. Any number of life experiences could throw us into this world of darkness. We could lose a dear loved one, like a spouse or a child. We wonder how can I live even another day? What meaning of my life is there, without my dearest loved one? Or, the doctor could tell you that you have a terminal illness and six months to live with no hope for cure or treatment. Or, you could get laid off after 30 years of giving your life for the company, and now they say they don’t need you. Where is the meaning of your life when your career has been everything? Or, your spouse of 30 years tells you out of the blue that they are leaving you for someone else. Where did that come from? You thought your marriage was fine, and now you are all alone.

For Shan-tao, this parable expresses his spiritual impasse, the block wall that he had encountered in his spiritual search, perhaps not unlike the Buddha’s own spiritual journey. Shan-tao explains this parable to us, and tells us what the metaphors represent.

The river of water represents our greed, and how we can be consumed by our greed for all kinds of things, hindering us along our spiritual journey.

The river of fire represents our anger, and the destructive forces our anger can cause, just like a raging fire. A raging fire and to be raging mad are not dissimilar. We can easily become out of control, as is evidenced by our daily news of road rage and other episodes of people losing control.

The bandits pursuing us represent enticing teachings that promise material benefits in this world. The “Get Rich” syndrome or the path of trying to find happiness in material things.

The wild beasts represent our instinctual passions, that bind us to this world of delusion, of samsara. This could be our ego that looks out for itself first, or basic passions for food or sex.

The voice urging us to take the path from this shore represents the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, urging to move forward on the path to truth.

The voice calling us from the western, or the other shore represents Amida Buddha, the “timeless” Buddha, calling us to take the path.

The path is narrow, to illustrate our weak aspiration, or weak resolve to seek the path.

To me, the most important part of this parable is the white path. No matter what might happen to us in life, tragedy, misfortune, failure or disappointment, we must never lose sight of the path. There is a path. There is a way out of the darkness. All is not lost. There is a path, right in front of us. All we have to do is step forward on the path that is before us. Once we step forward on the path, our journey out of darkness has begun, and light will begin to shine.

I have heard a few teachers explain to me that in this parable, when the traveler decides to move forward on the narrow white path, then suddenly the path becomes quite wide. When we are unsure of what to do, to go forward or not, the path seems so narrow, but once we decide to move forward in life, then the path becomes very broad and wide.

If you find yourself at such an impasse in life, I hope that you will step forward on the narrow white path that leads to the other shore of truth and enlightenment.

Namuamidabutsu,

Rev. Marvin Harada