The man is out in the middle of a wasteland and none of his kind are to be seen. A horde of vicious ruffians and wild beasts see him there alone, and vie with one another in rushing to kill him. Fearing death he runs straightway to the West, and then sees these great rivers. Praying, he says to himself: "To the North and South I see no end to these rivers. Between them I see a white path, which is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are not far apart, how am I to traverse from one to the other? Doubtless today I shall surely die. If I seek to turn back, the horde of vicious ruffians and wild beasts will come at me. If I run to the North or South, evil beasts and poisonous vermin will race toward me. If I seek to make my way to the West, I fear that I may fall into these rivers."
Thereupon he is seized with an inexpressible terror. He thinks to himself: "Turn back now and I die. Stay and I die. Go forward and I die. Since death must be faced in any case, I would rather follow this path before me and go ahead. With this path I can surely make it across." Just as he thinks this, he hears someone from the east bank call out and encourage him: "Friend, just follow this path resolutely and there will be no danger of death. To stay here is to die." And on the west bank. there is someone calling out, "Come straight ahead, single-mindedly and with fixed purpose. I can protect you. Never fear falling into the fire or water!"
At the urging of the one and the calling of the other, the man straightens himself up in body and mind and resolves without any lingering doubts or hesitations. Hardly has he gone a step or two when from the east bank the horde of vicious ruffians calls out to him: "Friend, come back! That way is perilous and you will never get across. Without a doubt you are bound to die. None of us means to harm you." Though he hears them calling, the man still does not look back but single-mindedly and straightway proceeds on the path. In no time he is at the west bank, far from all troubles forever. He is greeted by his good friend and there is no end of joy.
That is the parable and this is the meaning of it: what we speak of as the "east bank" is comparable to this world, a house in flames. What we speak of as the "west bank" is symbolic of the precious land of highest bliss. The ruffians, wild beasts, and seeming friends are comparable to the Six Sense Organs, Six Consciousnesses, Six Dusts, Five Components, and Four Elements [that constitute the "self"].
The lonely wasteland is the following of bad companions and not meeting with those who are truly good and wise. The two rivers of fire and water are comparable to human greed and affection, like water, and anger and hatred, like fire. The white path in the center, four or five inches wide, is comparable to the pure aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land which arises in the midst of the passions of greed and anger. Greed and anger are powerful, and thus are likened to fire and water; the good mind is infinitesimal, and thus is likened to a white path [of a few inches in width].
The waves inundating the path are comparable to the constant arising of affectionate thoughts in the mind which stain and pollute the good mind. And the flames which scorch the path are comparable to thoughts of anger and hatred which burn up the treasures of dharma and virtue.
The man proceeding on the path toward the West is comparable to one who directs all of his actions and practices toward the West[ern Paradise]. The hearing of voices from the East bank encouraging and exhorting him to pursue the path straight to the West, is like Shakyamuni Buddha, who has already disappeared from the sight of men but whose teachings may still be pursued and are therefore likened to "voices." The calling out of the ruffians after he has taken a few steps is comparable to those of different teachings and practices and of evil views who wantonly spread their ideas to lead people astray and create disturbances, thus falling themselves into sin and losing their way.
To speak of someone calling from the West bank is comparable to the vow of Amitabha. Reaching the West bank, being greeted by the good friend and rejoicing there, is comparable to all those beings sunk long in the sea of birth and death, floundering and caught in their own delusions, without any means of deliverance, who accept Shakyamuni's testament directing them to the West and Amitabha's compassionate call, and obeying trustfully the will of the two Buddhas while paying no heed to the rivers of fire and water, with devout concentration mount the road of Amitabha's promised power and when life is o'er attain the other Land, where they meet the Buddha and know unending bliss.
selected from William Theodore de Bary, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan, Vintage, Random House, NY: 1972. ISBN: 0-394-71696-5, pp. 204-207