15 December 2005

Row, Row, Row Your Boat....

I sent the following email out to some of my nearest and dearest yesterday...

So after much agonizing over what to do next, the decision was made to do a full bypass on (my stepfather's) leg. He'll be on the table, they estimate, 3-5 hours, and has a fairly terrifyingly high probability of dying on the table. If he makes it through, he's got a fairly terrifyingly high probability of having strokes and diminished functioning. Mom's coping darned well. I'm doing what I can to offer practical help from a distance. In one of his lucid moments, (the stepfather) forbade me from coming out to help in person, because he doesn't want to risk either of "his beautiful grandsons" catching some hideous hospital-borne plague bacterium. So that's that. Can't say but that I'm relieved; the thought of driving on frozen roads over Donner Summit with a six month old in a carseat behind me wasn't precisely thrilling. So anyway, I'm stressed. Mostly because the possibilities keep scuttling around in my head like irate tidepool crabs. Someone hand me a mallet. Quick.
And bless her heart, E found the mallet. In amongst a host of other wholly practical advice, she tells me,
Not that I'm terribly good with it myself, but since you've expressed an interest in the concept in the past, this is an excellent exercise time for practising living in the moment. When the panic and anxiety spins around hard and fast, one coping strategy I've used is to fill my head w/ a simple song, usually Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Instead of, oh my god, panic.... I go for Row, row, row your, boat, gently down the stream.... over and over. Visualize it. Almost like a mantra. It sounds hokey, but it does help drown out the bad stuff. There's only so much you can do. I hope I don't sound like the New Age fluff and bluff I fear I sound like--you know what a stress case I can be. But I also have lived many years w/ very deep anxiety at various levels, so I understand. I guess that's what I'm trying to say. I understand what the panic feels like, and I know how it can eat your stomach lining out.
So this morning, while I'm showering and working on creating my day, I find myself humming. Row, row, row..... ahhh. She's right. There's something about a simple round, an image of calm water and boats. But as I'm surfing to find the lyrics for anyone (perish forfend!) who isn't familiar, I discover that there is a Buddhist Mantra aspect to the song...which is what E was saying, in a different way. Todd Barton tells us:
The Mantra
Row, row, row1 your boat,2
Gently,3 down the stream,4
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,5
Life is but a dream.6

The Commentary

  1. Row, row, row. In form and structure this triple repetition of the imperative, row parallels the daily Buddhist invocation of the Three Jewels: "Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dharma, and Homage to the Sangha." One could, for example, say, "Row for the Buddha, Row for the Dharma, and Row for the Sangha."
  2. Texturally, however, the word row is more closely linked to the Sanskrit word gate, which means "to go", and which begins the famous Heart Sutra Mantra:

    gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

    which translates as "Go, go, go perfectly and completely to build the path for enlightenment." Thus, the word row in our text is a shorthand for the Heart Sutra Mantra and may be construed as "I row towards enlightenment."
  1. your boat. It is your boat. You built this boat with your karma. It is nobody else's boat. It is nobody else's karma. You are rowing this boat toward enlightenment. It is your karmic stream.
  2. Gently. This is a call to go toward enlightenment gently, without force. It is like the gentle observation of your breath in meditation. Furthermore, it beckons us to undertake all actions, thoughts and deeds in gentleness and pure awareness. It should also be mentioned that some Buddhist scholars believe this word to refer to the Taoist/Buddhist concept of wu-wei, "nondoing."
  3. Down the stream. The "stream of Life." The daily dharma. The seemingly endless stream of death and rebirth. Your karmic stream.
  4. Merrily, merrily… This is a reference to the "merry" or "happy" state experienced in meditation. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "This happiness arises when we become free of incessant worrying and preoccupation, and from the fact that the body and mind are at ease".1 Thus, a direct result of meditation is the ability to row down the Stream of Life gently and merrily.
  5. Life is but a dream. Of course, poetically, "dream" rhymes with "stream". But we might also say that spiritually "dream" and "stream" rhyme. Stream, as we have seen, refers to this life, which is Maya – impermanent and illusory – which is ultimately a Dream. Meditate on the impermanence of all Dharmas.

The Paraphrase

(Homage to the Buddha, Homage to the Dharma, Homage to the Sangha.)

Aware of your karmic stream, Go along easily, completely and perfectly Toward enlightenment in you daily life.

Happily, happily, happily, Meditate on the impermanence Of all Dharmas.

When chanted, this mantra is cyclical, its beginning and end are One. In form, it is like the Wheel of Samsara. In practice, it can be chanted endlessly until you boat reaches the Other Shore, the Shore of Enlightenment.

Row, row, row.....


At 12/21/2005 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Bryan said...

Wow. Just frikkin' WOW.
Thank you so very much for that moment of Satori.

At 12/28/2005 08:53:00 PM, Anonymous Dana Nourie said...

Love it! And you know what I'm gonna say, but I'll say it anyway. Package it up as an essay and send it to Yoga Journal, or BuddhaDharma, or some such. Dana


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