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Mon Sep 17, 2012, 02:13 PM

The River Crossing (Updated)

Last edited Tue Sep 18, 2012, 08:39 AM - Edit history (1)

(Note: I updated this story with a more salubrious ending, and fixed some typos.)

On the twists and turns of our journey through life, it may come as a surprise to find ourselves standing on the bank of an enormous river. Mighty and impassable, its opposite bank is invisible, obscured by mist. At this point most people simply turn aside. They find plenty of interesting companions and activities on this side of the river to hold their attention, and fulfill their lives by mastering this familiar terrain.

For some unfathomable reason, others are drawn to the river's edge. They seem to hear a mysterious call, as though from a distant, unknown bird - barely audible, yet once heard impossible to ignore. These souls feel compelled to cross the river. Whatever the outcome, not to try is simply inconceivable.

First we ask the locals living on the bank, "What do you know of that far shore? What kind of land is it? Who lives there?" All manner of tales pour forth, each one more fantastical than the last.

"That land is inhabited by immortal beings, with strange powers unknown by ordinary people."
"That is where God lives. People must be specially blessed to go there."
"We can only cross the river after we have died. Have your relatives put coins on the eyes of your body to pay the ferryman."
"It takes years and years to learn how to cross the river. You must first be completely purified. If you are not, you will drown in the attempt."
"The river has no other side. This land you see around you is all there is."
"The streams over there run with ambrosia, and the trees are laden with golden fruit."
"Some have crossed, none have returned."
"I met a woman once who claimed to have crossed over and then come back. Although she said she was no different, I felt in my heart that she was now crazy."

If we are very lucky, we may stumble upon that crazy woman. She may listen to our questions, and say, "Why not go and see for yourself? I can show you how to build a raft to carry you out into the river, but the rest will be up to you." We know our answer must be "Yes". And so the Work begins.

Under her patient guidance we gather logs and boards, ropes and tools, bits of gaily decorated cloth and perhaps a cushion for our sitting. As we build our raft, we learn many lessons. Lessons about patience, and care, and mindfulness, and how not to blame the hammer when we hit our thumb. We speak at times with the locals who pass by, and we feel their amazement, amusement and even mockery for our task. Sometimes others come by who are building their own rafts. We trade design information, and talk about the lessons we have learned.

At last our raft seems ready. In a final act of gratitude, faith and acknowledgement, we tie our teacher's handmade pennant to its stubby mast. Our teacher helps us push it into the water, and then helps us climb on board. From the shore she says a fond farewell, and adds nuggets of last-minute advice:

"Don't mistake sandbars for the far shore."
"Don't try and steer for a particular destination, the river is far stronger than you."
"Just keep pushing on the oars - don't give up even if the journey seems hopeless".
"You may think you are about to crash on the far shore - in that moment let go of the oars and let the river do its work."
"Always trust the wisdom of the river."

And with one strong push we are away. The exhilaration of being on the open river is enormous. At first we shout and wave to those who watch from the bank. As we pull further away, we relax and sit on our cushion, watching the water curl and flow around us.

The messages of our teacher return to us as the crossing unfolds. A delightful island looks like it might be the far shore. At the last moment we recognize it for what it is and steer on past. Our raft grounds repeatedly on shoals and sand bars. Each time we must work ourselves free with painful effort. Through long days and nights we alternately strain at the oars and then rest ourselves by sitting on our cushion. Courage and determination ebb and flow with the currents, but we are in the grip of the river now - turning back to the familiar shore has become impossible.

Imperceptibly, the far shore grows closer. The river seems much deeper here. The currents of the waters change, becoming less predictable. Sometimes the wind rises in strong gusts, at other times we feel becalmed, as though we are making no progress at all. Through it all we push on the oars and sit on our cushion.

We look away from the water for a minute, thinking perhaps about our oars or our cushion. When we look back, the far shore has suddenly materialized out of the mist. In that moment a shocking, unexpected transformation overtakes our journey. Rocks and wild currents menace us. Fear rises, and the urge to push on the oars, to find a safe haven, is overwhelming. Just before we wreck upon the rocks we remember our teacher's last words. In that moment of grace, trust and surrender unite and we let go of the oars. Our raft spins out of control as we release ourselves to the wisdom of the river.

But instead of the splintering, death-dealing crash of our fears, we are miraculously treated to the softest, gentlest, most welcoming of landings. With a whispering bump our raft glides up onto the bank.

It slows,
and then,
We STOP.

In the sudden stillness we try to collect our wits by sitting on our cushion, but that now seems faintly ridiculous. There is absolutely no point in sitting on a cushion on a raft that has done its job. We are here. Instead of sitting, it's time to find out what "here" is like.

We stand up, walk off the raft, and feel our legs climb the shope of the bank. They are the same legs that carried the logs to build the raft. We look out on the new landscape with the same eyes that gazed out from the other shore. We plan our route up from the water's edge with the same thoughts that planned the raft in the first place. Nothing in us has changed. Well, nothing except for for one thing. We now know where we are - on the far side.

We decide to rest for the night, to take up our new journey in the morning. With our axe we chop wood for a fire. With our bucket we carry water from the river. We make our evening meal, and rest.

With the morning comes that same strange bird-call, this time near at hand. We look up into the trees and now we see it, iridescent feathers flashing like a beacon in the sunshine. We walk away from the river and find a road - much like the road we traveled on the other side - stretching out to the horizon. The road calls, and sounds like birdsong. As we take a single step out onto this new path, our feet feel suddenly at home.

As we walk on, we take occasional glances backward. Our raft lies still and silent on the edge of the river, its purpose fulfilled. Our teacher's flag still flutters from the mast. As we walk on the flag grows smaller, until it fades and vanishes from view.

As we walk further our steps grow lighter. Is it the sunshine and birdsong that warms our heart, or is is perhaps something even more true? Happiness deepens, thoughts quiet. Now, all that remains is the shining of the sun, the singing of birds, the growing of trees, the flowing of water, the walking of feet, the smiling of hearts, and the awareness of ... Everything.

~Bodhi Chefurka

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