The Ocean of Existence

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 rheiHeraclitus 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)

# · Mathias

I think you are on to something here. There is no other side where the grass is green. There is only here and now, an ocean in constant movement.

# · maria

Even before my recent deepened interest in Buddhism, I always felt that a ‘hope for a safe harbour’ interfered with making the sea that is life the place that is both the journey and the destination. Your reflections here give a lovely glimpse of the depth of the world that is the human realm.

# · maria

[I am sorry … the link I put for my name is wrong. It should be, not .org]

# · ramonsanchez

their troubles are endless……..this is the part of buddhist thought that i find alien……..the ocean of energy/ of chi both surounding and to be found in the dan dien this is a part of my practice and definately pre buddhist.anyone that meditates has been there………maybe you could expand/explain/talk about the troubles?I would find this helpful as a person that sits with and has often been taught by buddhists.personally i feel priveledged to be alive every moment a gift every breath a blessing.any troubles are lessons offered with love.why do buddhists persue this negative vision?

# · Will

I’m sure you can make the case that certain readings of Buddhism, and certain aspects of the Buddhist tradition, have something of a negative approach to human existence; but my hunch would be that these tend to be the ones that dream most fervently of further shores. Boo to the gloom-mongers! I say.

I’ll write a bit more about this later, if I remember. But perhaps once you recognise that the sea is all there is, then there is no longer any ideal world against which to compare this one. And so we no longer need to succumb to this negative assessment of the world. This leaves us free on the one hand to recognise (to borrow a line from Michel Serres) that “we are troublemakers full of troubles” – or at least most of us are! – whilst on the other hand it is possible to see how fascinating, how wide and how wonderfully deep this life on the ocean wave is…

Best wishes,


# · Brian

i am a frequent reader of your blog, it actually sits nicely on my igoogle home. i read every post and enjoy looking over your insight, but have until now failed to respond to any post! as a lifelong (im caucasian and 23) practitioner of mahayana buddhism (at the cleveland buddhist temple, a nice blend of jodo shinshu and zen) i am consistently pressed to review the ideals of buddhisms relationship with ‘hope’.

i am a licensed social worker for a children’s mental health agency. i work with a variety of younsters from 5 to 18, some who have been through tremendous turmoil and others who have frequent episodes of depression. i became interested in mental health through my practice of buddhism, including the oh so prevalent practice of mindfulness. (there is actually a therapy based on this called dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT.)

back to hope… a reoccurring theme of our agency is hope. i frequently see kids in groups creating hope boxes, and writing wishes that they have, or even goals! i think back to a korean (i think) film i saw which was about an eastern man who desperately wanted to travel to the west for material reasons, of course. he met several people along the way, including a monk who i believe was prostrating to somewhere. the monk began to speak with this man about hope, and stated that hope leads to despair. this surfaces in my mind weekly and i am forced to decide if this is a personal approach to living life or if this is a truly basic philosophy which would potentially have gains within itself.

i see these kids who have been through these great turmoils and made amazing gains at that! i often wonder if these kids need to stop hoping as someone who, shall i say, has nothing left to hope for. someone who is or has already come to mindfulness, need not be hopeful to continue to be mindful, or it is a basic practice of buddha mind.

i can see how to cease hope or to be great sea monsters who roam the endless depths, who sport and play in an ocean without any shore. i see this in myself daily. i see the exact opposite in co-workers and other professionals who work with these kids daily. i would like to work from a strengths perspective, in a what can you do, what is already within you, rather then to hope or to seek for something outside of yourself. but then i guess, i may be hoping for something for these kids also.

to hope is a mere factor of a way in which an individual was raised. i was raised to live with the ebb and tide to adapt and to learn to control myself within chaotic circumstances. for us, this may be a simple practice, or buddha mind, or simply put… just the way things are. once this is taught to be a positive philosophy, once we stop hoping, we will all excel.

at the temple, while meditating, the reverend states… ‘sit like a mountain, the rain may come, the snow may fall, the wind may blow, but a mountain just sits, this is buddha mind’.

# · Lea


I think it is important to distinguish between accepting and not hoping.

There’s a story I read somewhere (and can’t find a link to now, sorry) in which the Dalai Lama was asked how he could bear to be compassionate for all the suffering in the world. The questioner’s concern was that having compassion and sharing the suffering of other beings led to despair, obviously not a good place, so how did one develop compassion without falling into despair? The Dalai Lama is reported to have responded that having compassion for suffering did not lead to despair but rather to hope, hope for the release from suffering of all beings.

I agree that the supposed corollary to the view of samsara as an ocean, that release from samsara would be represented by a shore or safe harbor, is misguided. I think one is misled by considering hope to be for a being to reach shore or safe harbor, rather than for the being to recognize safety as is. An enlightened being can see that the suffering being is actually safe right where it is but is confused and can’t recognize its true state.

I imagine watching a child learning to swim in shallow water and under the parent’s supervision. The parent knows that child is safe and that it will learn to swim, but initially, the child is fighting the water and needs reassurance or even the ocassional steadying hand. But even having compassion for the child’s anxiety doesn’t make the parent despair, because there is this hopeful recognition that the child will come through this able to swim.

As an older social worker, my suggestion would be to not shy away from or be suspicious of your hope. As long as hope does not become the goal, it is a valuable signal to you of whether progress is being made, either for yourself or for your charges. If you can sit with suffering and still validate hope, your view is correct and your charge’s suffering can pass.

Acceptance of the ocean does not require letting go of hope.

# · PeterAtLarge

Yes, I agree with this. We can hope, surely, without forming an attachment to hope. It’s the attachment that brings suffering with it.

# · Brian

Thanks. I think from my end of things, I see a lot of the attachment to hope and hope as a goal. I tend to forget that hope can exist while accepting. I tend to see co workers utilizing this as an ends rather than means.

# · ray

even sea monsters get hungry and hope to eat?

# · Jayarava

Hi Will,

Lots of comments on this one!

Picky point by surely “bhava-sāgara” is an ocean of becoming, rather than existence. Seems to me that choosing a verb rather than a noun to translate better captures the original image – it is more dynamic. Your choice of image illustrates the idea quite well I think – waves emerging, and submerging.

Seems to me that the two metaphors here – crossing the ocean, and embracing the ocean (if that is a suitable way of summarising the approach you are suggesting) – are equally valid. Fixing on one or the other involves a polarisation. They’re only models, and approaching practice from either perspective is valid and useful.

The embracing the ocean view – in which one does not seek to escape samsara but merely becomes increasingly aware of everything and just experiences it, is rooted, as I understand it, in Tathagata-garbha thinking. I think it will generally appeal to those whose experience of life is bland to pleasant on the whole. Those with a lot of suffering are more likely to relate to images of crossing the ocean.

I don’t believe that anyone can embrace the ocean without some expectation that it will lead to a better life – their has to be a motivation. In Buddhist terms cetana (intention) is an omnipresent mental state. Contrarily I believe that anyone who wants a better life must embrace the ocean. While the end of the process may be freely roaming the ocean like a sea-monster, the process itself involves transformation into a sea monster that is able to roam freely.

You are an experienced practitioner. I suspect that having crossed some of the ocean you come to a point where you see that there is no ocean, only an experience of ocean-ness and crossing becomes less relevant. It does not mean that crossing the ocean is irrelevant to your former self, or that you wasted your time over the years. It is the process of seeking, that leads you to this insight.

In fact the groundlessness of being is the dry land we seek, it’s just that without the insights that bhavana practice brings there is no way for us to comprehend this. In the end the ocean is a metaphor, and “I” do not become a sea-monster but something far more inspiring (I hope).

# · ramon sanchez

thank you for you comments/insights Will your inclusiveness ::this is a path i try to walk also and thank you jayarava your input is thought provoking :: being a drop in the oceon is this not sufficient?does being require dryness?I dont know why i prefer the wet but i do (:

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