Years ago, more than ten now, when I started getting into buddhist teachings, I recall listening to an hour-long discourse given by a monk on his interpretation of the spiritual meaning to be found in the children’s song:
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream
It was a brilliant talk — simple, memorable. I was amazed. He layered meaning into words I’d known most of my life. Words I took at face value. It’s a boat and you’re rowing it down the stream. If I thought of the words, it conjured images of blue summer skies and light clouds. If I thought of the song, it reminded me of amusing ourselves on long car rides or around a campfire. There was some magic in it, a lyrical beauty; the wonder to my young ears, of songs sung in rounds.
For nearly a decade after the monk’s talk, I went regularly to what amounts to thousands of hours of dharma talks – evening sessions, weekend retreats, weeks-long festivals. But that one hour I remember vividly, perhaps because it was early days in my spiritual seeking. I hadn’t yet given up the hard cynicism, the burden, of my adolescence. It was some perfect combination of familiar words mixed with the wisdom of thousands of years of inner exploration.
Of course, his talk was more strictly tied to a formal buddhist practice, but here is my current (yes, that’s a pun) interpretation:
Row, row, row is putting one foot in front of the other, powering yourself. There’s not just one ‘row’ because there’s not just one time that you apply effort. You show up for life again and again and again. It pushes you around and sometimes you struggle and it’s hard work and the oars are heavy. But you carry on rowing because no one else can do it for you. Your boat is your life, your vessel. Row, row, row could also be said to be your body, speech and mind, the components of your boat. An ipso facto sort of thing: row, row, row is your boat.
Gently is how you treat yourself and others, and also how you treat thoughts and beliefs. Gently, with compassion: with a soft and loving heart. And also gently, with wisdom: hold lightly to what appears, because it’s nature is interdependent, changeable and open to interpretation. The stream is the path your boat takes. And travelling downriver is letting go of control. Use the power of the movement of the water itself. You apply effort by rowing – sometimes to correct your course, sometimes to add speed – but always with the flow. Gently down the stream is humility. Keep your mind and body easy, natural and supple.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily are the ‘four immeasurables': equanimity, love, compassion, joy. In buddhist thought, our natural state — the ground of our awareness — is bliss, pure joy. When you stop discriminating good and bad (equanimity), and cultivate love and compassion, the mind is said to be naturally joyful. I think of it as a child-like grace. A small child has not yet made the myriad decisions, the thoughts that pile up and then calcify into a painful judgmental worldview. Be like that child, now, now, now, now.
Life is but a dream.
Let’s talk about that some other time. I have a day to get out and enjoy.
Happy Saturday morning!