The simile of the raft was given by the Buddha to explain his teaching. It begins with a man being chased by murderous thugs:
“Then the man, afraid, … would flee this way or that. He would see 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.
“… Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet. Crossed over, having gone to the other shore, he would stand on high ground, a brahman.
“… The great expanse of water stands for the fourfold flood: the flood of sensuality, the flood of becoming, the flood of views, and the flood of ignorance. The near shore, dubious and risky stands for self-identification. The further shore, secure and free from risk stands for Unbinding.
“The raft stands for just this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Making an effort with hands and feet stands for the arousing of persistence. Crossed over, having gone to the other shore, he would stand on high ground, a brahman stands for the Arahant.” — Asivisa Sutta [SN 35.197]
This simile is very important. The Buddha’s teaching can be divided into two main sections: the Flood and the Raft. In the Flood, Ignorance of reality leads to suffering. The Raft, the Buddha’s teaching, is meant to take us across the Flood by taking the Noble Eightfold Path to Unbinding or Nibbāna.
Of course, actually it’s a little more complicated than that…
The proper name for the Flood is the process of Dependent Origination. It explains how we trap ourselves in conditioned existence and create suffering. The Raft, the Noble Eightfold Path, is a step-by-step process leading to release or Buddhahood. The Flood and Raft together are called the Radiant Circle. This circle is the map of the Buddha’s teaching; we will use this symbol to keep oriented amid the complexities of study and practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Now we are suffering, caught in the dangerous Flood of Dependent Origination. The Buddha’s teaching gives us an unprecedented opportunity to move from danger to safety, from suffering to release by means of the Raft of the Noble Eightfold Path.