Indian Philosophy – The Jains & The Leaky Boat

boat india river

For Jains, karma is always bondage, always weight that keeps you down, always division or blockage between you and the ALL.  Thus, one tries best to avoid accumulating karma and to destroy the karma one has already accumulated.  The Jains use another metaphor to teach the dual practice of avoiding karma and shedding karma, what I call the Jain Leaky Boat.  Suppose you ride in a boat across water to a distant shore, much as the Tirthankaras forded across before the community could be used as a boat.  Water represents chaos and desire, and the land represents firmament and enlightenment.  The boat is leaky, with water pouring in, and so you must do two things to get across without sinking.

ship stormy sea

First, you must plug the leaks so that water stops coming in.  For example, Jains take on the discipline (dharma) of a vegetarian diet as a vital part of their ascetic practice, such that they avoid causing harm to animals.  When we take steps to reduce stress in our life or better our routine, it is by eliminating negative things.

Second, you must bail out the water that is already in the boat.  The Jains call this “shedding” karma, much as we throw off chains or heavy clothes.  For example, Jains fast, meditate and stand in yogic postures to cook the seeds of past involvements out of themselves.  When we train to strengthen our bodies and minds, it is by engaging in positive things.

Jains believe that it is only by this two-pronged strategy of plugging and bailing, eliminating the negative and engaging in the positive, that the individual can be liberated from desire, suffering and round after round of rebirth into future lives of desire and suffering.  From the Tattvartha Adhigama Sutra, a central Jain text, it says:

bailing water india

There is a stoppage of inflow of karmic matter into the soul.  It is produced by preservation, carefulness, observances, meditation, conquest of sufferings, and good conduct.  By austerities is caused the shedding of karmic matter…  Liberation is freedom from all karmic matter, owing to the non-existence of the cause of bondage and to the shedding of the karmas.  After the soul is released, there remain perfect right-belief, perfect right-knowledge, perfect perception, and the state of having accomplished all.

ball of twine

Gosala, a sage who was an opponent of Mahavira and Buddha in early texts, taught that we can stop bad karma from coming in but can’t do anything about bad karma already acquired, using a ball of twine to teach that we have to let our past sins unravel on their own accord.  Both Mahavira and Buddha taught that rather than simply wait, we can live a disciplined life that not only stops bad attachments and conditioned desires coming in but gets rid of those we have already accumulated.  Some today argue that Gosala was somewhat misunderstood by Jains and Buddhists, and that he was not arguing we should do nothing to undo the bad we already have in us but rather that we have no control as to when that bad is resolved, no matter how hard we may want it.