Joseph Anderson

Odysseus Builds His Raft: Partnering with the Divine

In book V of the Odyssey, Odysseus takes his leave from the island of the nymph Calypso to begin the final stage of his journey home. We find an extended passage there describing in some detail the step-by-step construction of the raft he builds for this purpose. We see him felling and shaping timbers, nailing them together, marking out the perimeter, attaching a wickerwork splash guard, crafting a sail, raising a mast, attaching a steering oar. As he is working, he gets help from Calypso: she shows him where the tall trees grow; she brings him tools; she brings him cloth for a sail; she prepares and provides provisions for the journey.

What is interesting to me is that Calypso is not a continuous presence as he goes about his work: instead, she comes, she offers help, and she goes away. Homer calls this out specifically: “And then Calypso, bright goddess, returned to her dwelling.” I think of Calypso as an image of the divine presence in our lives. Like Odysseus, we do the work. But like him, we don’t do it alone: we are shown the way, given tools and provisions. Much of what we do happens in the harsh and unromantic light of our own choices and hard work. But then the whispered voice comes: the corrective, the encouragement, the synchronicity of circumstance and opportunity that closes one door, opens another, and says “walk on through.”

In Japanese Buddhism this dynamic is captured in the terms jiriki and tariki, “self-power” and “other-power”. When I first got deeply involved with Buddhist studies at Nalandabodhi in the mid-2000s, I was really quite shocked to see how much responsibility was placed on the individual. This didn’t quite mesh with the “by grace you are saved” teaching of my early evangelical upbringing. I found it very refreshing and exhilarating – respectful of me as a human being and empowering for my sense of worth and potential. But I have since learned that even in Buddhism there is a continuum. Jiriki is associated with practices like Zen: ultimate responsibility. Tariki relates to traditions like Pure Land Buddhism (for example Jodo Shinshu) with its emphasis on a savior such as Amida Buddha: ultimate support, guidance, and inspiration.

It’s been normative in religious history for traditions to adopt one or the other of these perspectives. But with spiritual maturity comes a recognition that both modes operate in our lives: sometimes we need to do the work, and sometimes we need to let go. This is one of the great mysteries of spiritual practice: when do we take the lead, and when do we follow? One thing I’m certain of: if we pay attention, we can gain insight into whether we are headed into listen-and-follow mode or step-out-and-trust mode.

Since I’ve been practicing shamanism, with its focus on direct inspiration and cultivation of intuitive awareness, a dynamic that has been working under the surface for a long time has become explicit: there is an ebb and flow of responsibility. There are times when I am clearly expected to move forward by my own lights: “follow your heart” is one way this comes across. At other times I get clear instruction to step back and wait–as the meditation slogan goes, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

In both these moments there is deep learning: in the first, I am learning to trust myself; in the second, I am learning to trust spirit. As the path unfolds, I find myself moving back and forth between these two states of consciousness. I welcome the goddess of inspiration when it comes, rejoice in its presence, and listen eagerly; when it leaves, I take a deep breath, make my choices, focus on my work. And so the raft is built.