Row Your Boat Mantra:
A Buddhist Commentary
by Todd Barton
Row, row, row1 your boat,2
Gently,3 down the stream,4
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,5
Life is but a dream.6
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."
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."
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.
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."
Down the stream. The "stream of Life." The daily dharma.
The seemingly endless stream of death and rebirth. Your karmic stream.
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.
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.
(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.
1 Reprinted by permission from Breathe! You Are Alive:
Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing by Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 1990.
Copyright Todd Barton 1993
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