One cannot properly let go of what
one did not properly hold in the first place.
In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha said that some study the Dharma for unskilful reasons – not for realising its true meaning; but for offence and defence in debate. Thus grasping the Dharma wrongly, they do not reach enlightenment and experience long-term suffering instead. This is as if grasping a snake wrongly and being bitten by it. However, one who learns and practises properly attains long-term happiness by grasping it well ‘by the neck’. The Buddha next spoke of a raft, which one uses to cross water with. Upon reaching the further shore of enlightenment, it should be let go off as it would be pointless to carry it on land. Likewise, the Dharma is like the raft of the Noble Eightfold Path, for crossing over with; not for holding on to. Even the Dharma should be let go of eventually, much more to say non-Dharma.
There might be some confusion at this point, as the Buddha first spoke of holding on to the Dharma, followed by letting it go. So, are we supposed to hang on or not? That the similes of snake and raft are taught together means they are interlinked, to be understood and practised in sequence. The Dharma must always first be utilised well before releasing one’s grip on it. Even among Buddhists, some study the sutta partially and erroneously conclude from the simile of the raft alone that the Dharma is to be let go – before even grasping its significance properly, as reflected in the simile of the snake. In cohesion, the two similes emphasise that we should skilfully hold on to the snake or raft of the Dharma to cross the choppy waters of Samsara. Only when we can step upon the safe shore of liberation should we let the vehicle go.
The Buddha advised us to finally release the Dharma because for true liberation to be attained, nothing, whatsoever, should be clung to, not even the Dharma, because attachment to anything, even to the truth or the way to the truth, renders one still defiled, bound by that attached to. This does not mean to abandon living by principles of the Dharma, but to let go of clinging to all views, both wrong and right, to realise spiritual freedom. As long as the Dharma is clung to, it is just attachment to a view. So long as the Dharma is not realised experientially, one is still not free. If there is still clinging, there is no perfect Right Understanding yet – because the Dharma ultimately teaches all to be free from attachment (to the Dharma and non-Dharma), aversion (including towards letting go of the Dharma) and delusion (which obstructs Right Understanding).
As the means is not the end,
the means must be released
to realise the end led to.