Wednesday May 7, 2008
Recently I’ve been reflecting on an image that recurs throughout the Buddhist tradition, that of the bhava-sāgara, or the ocean of existence. The Pāli texts are full of ocean metaphors, as a quick glance at the handy guide to similes on the Access to Insight web pages will show; and the image of the ocean of existence is one that finds its way into later Buddhism in Tibet, China Japan and elsewhere. In one quote of which I’m particularly fond, the Hua-yan Sutra says “Sentient beings bob and sink in the ocean of existence. Their troubles are boundless; they have no place to rest”.
The idea of existence as a sea is one that, for me, captures something of the sense we can have – whether queasy or exhilarating – of the profound instability and uncertainty of life, the ebb and flow and swell of our day-to-day existence. This ebb and flow has been recognised in the West ever since the days of the pre-Socratics (Πάντα ῥεῖ – panta rhei – Heraclitus is supposed to have said), but also it can often seem as if the Western tradition has sought to tame the flux, or else has sought to cross over this ocean in the Good Ship Philosophy to attain to solid ground.
At times it seems as if this longing for solid ground – a longing that seems to me to be antithetical to a good deal of Buddhist metaphysics – leads us to see the end of Buddhist practice as equivalent to putting into safe harbour. This is an idea that is not unprecedented in the Pāli texts, but it does not seem to me to be a particularly appealing prospect. After all, what would one do once one arrived at this safe port? Put up one’s feet and spend one’s days puffing on a pipe? And to stake our hopes one some promised land of solid ground that lies over the horizon is, to say the least, something of a gamble.
I prefer a different image. What if there is nothing other than the ocean? What if there is no safe harbour to be had? Here, out on the high seas, we were born; here we live; here we will die. Then perhaps what we need to do is give up hope of dry land, and get to know the movement of the winds and the tides, the ebb and flow of the ocean.
The Udāna has an image that I prefer. Those who have attained to understanding are not likened to sailors who have crossed the ocean and returned to dry land, but instead to great sea monsters who roam the endless depths, who sport and play in an ocean without any shore. They are those who have given up on land-lubber hopes and dreams for good.
(These reflections come from an article I’ve been writing for The Pragmatic Buddhist. I’ll post a link when the article goes online)
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