A Mantra for Westerners
By Alex Call
Out of pre- Victorian times, perhaps originating in the United States, comes:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
This universally known ditty is far more than a children’s song. It has very deep meanings, including the facet of being sung in the form of a round. I wonder if some wandering Buddhist, perhaps reincarnated on banks of the Mississippi River or some such locale long before Buddhism had come to the West, did not consciously or otherwise make this up.
Here’s some historical reference from Wikipedia:
“It has been suggested that the song may have originally arisen out of American minstrelsy. The earliest printing of the song is from 1852, when the lyrics were published with similar lyrics to those used today, but with a very different tune. It was reprinted again two years later with the same lyrics and another tune. The modern tune was first recorded with the lyrics in 1881, mentioning Eliphalet Oram Lyte in The Franklin Square Song Collection but not making it clear whether he was the composer or adapter.”
Let’s look at the song line by line.
Row, row, row your boat
Effort and intention is featured here. One must make consistent efforts to keep your vessel moving. It’s not enough, in the song’s view, to simply let the current take you wherever it may. You have to row. Rowing is a demanding task, requiring focus, judgment, and persistence. Obviously, the rower has intention to keep the boat going the right direction with the proper pace, seemingly without end.
Gently down the stream
One’s boat should take advantage of the flow of life. To row upstream is not going to work, so abiding Faith is indicated here; the flow of life will be generally correct, though not perfect. We know that currents and rapids, even waterfalls and floods will occur. But a sure, faithful, consistent touch will usually put us in a good position to handle the next transition in an unending series of transitions; “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly”. Being heavy-handed and forcing the issue, especially in our dealings with others, is often counterproductive and does not bring one into a happy place anyway. There’s only so much one can do about life: don’t hit the banks or run aground on obvious sandbars, watch for snags and sweepers, maybe even plan ahead a little bit (but remember the river is taking you and you can’t change that)!
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Don’t worry – be happy! Thich Naht Hanh tells us to practice smile therapy. The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. Life is at the very least simply not fair: it’s hard (as John Wayne once said, “and it’s harder if you’re stupid”), and it’s really made so much more tedious and weary-making when you add your own heavy piles of imagined, neurotic, crappy misery on top of your already karmically-laden craft. Hey, we all do it; if we didn’t we wouldn’t need the song to remind us. But we can try to remember, over and over, and it takes a lot of mantra repetitions to get this into out thick skulls: repeat after me… Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily….and…! ‘a one more time!
Life is but a dream
Ah…this is the part that’s really deep and juicy. It has to do with the nature of mind and perception. What do we see? What is there, or what we apply our mental special effects to? The latter, really. Life is a fleeting, beginningless, endless moment that we choose to view as past, present and future. Well, the past no longer exists, the future has yet to be, (if ever- and it won’t be what we think it will be anyway), and the ‘present’ might be a gift, but we can only infer that it happens at all by referring to our personally tainted visions of the past and our fear-and-hope-driven (two sides of the same coin) daydreams of the future. So, since all manifestation is on a very basic physical level nothing but an spacious, outrageous, empty shimmer of energy, why not follow the instructions of the lines above and enjoy whatever manifests as we make the effort to guide our boats as nicely and happily as we can manage. The dream will happen, regardless of our take on it, until it does whatever it does.
This ideally sung as a round, indicating that the cycle of the dream is endless itself and struggle is useless, only the approach and intention are ours to take. Row gently and merrily, and remind me to do the same.