A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat at a Zen center in the heart of the Karoo, South Africa. Of the various spiritual retreats I have attended, I found the Zen teachings to be the most transferrable to daily life.

I have been listening to recordings of Dharma talks by the teacher at the center, Antony Osler, as part of my continuing practice, and I came across a reading that deeply moved me. It strikes me as an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey, and I’m republishing it here with his permission.

Emergency instructions from the life-raft

So here we are, lining up at the jetty again: sparkling new robes, shaven heads, high heels, smartphones and diamonds.

Off by raft to the other shore. Tickets from the ferryman, pamphlets and promises. Roll up, roll up! Nirvana cruises, will just cost you all you’ve got, entertainment all the way from teachers, poets, patriarchs, Buddhas, charlatans, sunsets and bird calls.

Wind in my face, wind at my back, family journeys like all of them: ‘are we there yet? are we there yet?’ Romances on the after deck, kisses on the bridge.

Searching the far horizon, and like anything attained with the pulling of oars, we head onward while we face backward, watching what we know grow small.

Then just as I’m not looking, a bump. And I step onto the honeyed land, sand between my toes, gazing around me at the new kind of poplars, hummingbirds, chrysanthemums… or maybe they’re the old kinds, just so unassailably radiant this time around.

And from there I walk on, with my own two feet. Except it’s no longer only my own two feet, there’s a thrumming beside me. 10 000 footsteps, 20 000, maybe millions, singing and drumming, singing and drumming.

And yet however loudly we celebrate, we cannot drown out the shouts from the place where we started out, from the cry of lambs.

So we place our bags beside the water’s edge once more, making a chain back over the river with hands, arms, shouts, poems, sutras, Buddhas, sunsets, bird calls, wind in the eaves, until we find ourselves back again, where we began; embracing, weeping, touching faces with our fingers, reassuring, comforting, persuading, wondering who believes us now; who believes the words from where we’ve just been, and all try to speak louder or more softly.

And then the longing begins all over again, the confusion, the search. Now it’s difficult to see which bank is which, and where the suffering begins and where it ends. We cannot do otherwise, so to and fro we go, from shore to shore. From shore to shore, arms weak, breath short, voices calling on every side. And us answering.

And then somewhere in the middle of the current, the raft begins to tilt and sink. Life jackets gone, internet gone, we link arms and we stand, singing our songs and blowing our trumpets, leaving only a sunset, a south wind, the barking of dogs and children’s tears. You, my friend, and me. This lapping against the waterline. This, the soft, wet splash of grace. Leaving only sunset, south wind, barking of dogs and children’s tears, and you, my friend, and me, and this lapping against the waterline, this, the soft, wet splash of grace.

— Antony Osler

You can listen to the original recording here, starting at approximately 21 minutes in.