Tarot & Buddhism: 6 of Swords: Buddha's Raft
(c) Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2005
The traditional imagery of the 6 of Sword depicts a woman, her head is hung down and covered, with an aspect of defeat and humiliation. There is a small child by her side, her arm is around the child in a protective stance, and they are being ferried across a river. A boatman with a large staff is seen pushing the boat from the shore to get this trip underway. Are they travelling as a family leaving behind grief or grievance on this rocky shoreline? What are they going to do with the boat when they reach the other shore which promises some finer better day?
One of Buddhas' teachings is a story about a raft which is told as a simile for understanding the Dharma. Dharma is the body of teachings expounded by the Buddha. It is the knowledge of, or duty to undertake conduct set forth by the Buddha, as a way to enlightenment and one of the basic minute elements from which all things are made. Dharma literally means path or right way. The Dharma is like a raft which is used for crossing over to enlightenment but is not for holding onto. Buddha tells the story as follows.
"Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He sees a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, 'What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore with the raft, making an effort with my hands and feet?'
So the man gathered grass, twigs, branches,and leaves, and bound them together to make a raft. He crossed over safely to the other shore using the raft by propelling it with his hands and feet. Upon reaching the further shore, he might think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! Why don't I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?' What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?"
"No, lord." replied the monks.
"And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dharma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dharma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dharmas, to say nothing of non-Dharmas."
There is another story of Buddha which also applies to the 6 of Swords. It relates the tale of the day Buddha met an ascetic who had practiced austere living for 25 years. Buddha asked him what his reward had been for all of his hard work and effort. The ascetic proudly told the Buddha that now he could cross the river by walking on the water. Buddha let the ascetic know that this wasn't a significant achievement for all of his hard years of effort because he could all along have crossed the river on a ferry for one cent. Buddha had a sense of humour.
The moral of the story is to dump the raft because there is nothing in life worth clinging to - especially the past or that rocky shore that you are leaving behind. There is also a message about the sacrifices we will have to make in the name of spiritual living and the seeking of enlightenment. Sometimes there are easier ways and we need to learn to keep things in proper perspective so we aren't swept away with the illusory attraction of suffering.