Row Your Boat Mantra:
A Buddhist Commentary
by Todd Barton


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

  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.

 


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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