The Parable of the Vessel

In his memoir, Vessel (Pínáng / 筏喩), Cai Chongda (蔡崇達) describes the tough-love advice given to him by his great-grandmother (太姥爷 / 太婆):

“Your body’s a vessel. If you wait on it to do something, there’s no hope for you. If you put your body to work, you can start to live.”

Those words made me reflect on the Buddhist understanding of the body and the parable of the raft.

If we let the afflictions of the body afflict the mind, there truly would be no hope for us—just like Cai’s great-grandmother says. We’d be a ship adrift at sea with no direction.

But we can work with the pínáng (or the more traditional Chinese Buddhist term, fá / 筏) through the mind to seize control over our lives.

As one of my teacher’s said, one of the ways to regain our sense of the body is through a mindful investigation of the breath. We can investigate the possibilities and limits of what we can do with the breath within the body.

In doing so, we can put the “body to work” and develop a greater feeling of well-being from learning healthier ways to experience the body. This inner strength can help us as we navigate the stormy seas of life.

I recently attended a sāmaṇera ordination ceremony at a Thai forest monastery, where the preceptor spoke of how ardent, practicing monks should focus on the five root meditation themes: the hair of the head, the hair of the body, the nails, the teeth and the skin.

The body gives us an object for us to scrutinize our relationship to the world—our anxieties, aversions, desires and diversions. We experience everything through the body. We can’t run away from it.

“You can’t hide the ocean, and you can’t put a fence around it,” says Cai, a Fuijianese native whose father was once a sailor, in Vessel. “Every stretch of sea is different with its own dangers.”

In much the way, we can’t avoid the inevitable oceans of aging, illness and death that rock the body with their waves.

We can only find refuge in reaching the peaceful island that will allow to finally say farewell to the ship that helped carry us ashore.

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