The sea of samsara

I’ve always rather liked the Buddhist analogy of the ‘sea of samsara’, meaning the apparently endless ocean we must cross, lifetime after lifetime to reach that far distant shore – termed in Buddhism Nibbana.

It’s relevant on a number of levels; the trials and tribulations of life can leave us feeling cast adrift as the storms rage. And yet we can learn to swim can’t we. We can learn to do better and to stay afloat through troubled times. Yet always at the back of our mind we must know, we have to get out of this water to be really safe.

Now to extend this analogy slightly, sometimes in life we get a period of calm and the temptation here is to drop anchor. Anchors are useful for they certainly help us to have stability, even when all around us is changing. But the problem with an anchor is that it also stops our progress. And the sea of samsara is meant to be crossed, after all.

For myself I’ve always felt a certain apprehension about the sea, it’s power and majesty are just so vast. I’m okay as long as I’m near the shore but I’m all too aware that in deep waters we never know what lies beneath. And yet in life it’s important for us to face this fear. To actively dive beneath the surface and explore the depths of our life. What do we find? Just more life, but now we no longer feel afraid of it, we are familiar with it. This is one of the gifts of meditation – acquiring the inner stillness to listen to our deepest heart.

And can we love what we find here? So many of us are forgiving of any flaw in our friends and those closest to us, only to treat ourselves like a tyrant, berating even the smallest flaw. It’s hard to change with a critical voice in your ear, it’s so much easier when we can give ourselves friendly but firm encouragement.

But what about those ‘perfect storm’ days; those events in our lives where we become completely overwhelmed, where life threatens to drown us entirely? Well sometimes we are reduced down to the very most basic level, where all we can say is that we breathe in, we breathe out, the sun rises and the sun sets. Time passes and with it so do the storms. We can’t always control the when and how. Sometimes all we can cling to to keep us afloat are the standards we set for ourselves: honesty, integrity, harmlessness, generosity, kindness and a certain wise restraint.

The artist William Turner once had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship during a storm so he could witness to fury and the power of the maelstrom first hand. It must have been an amazing spectacle and quite humbling to recognise how small and powerless we are before the might of nature unleashed. Humility is a very powerful tool for those who can achieve it, perhaps second only to patience.

Perhaps if you’re on a ‘spiritual path’ you’ve learned to swim pretty well. Maybe you can even look at your reflection in that calm sea and like what you see. Well then perhaps one final piece of advice. You never know when you’re going to put your feet down and feel sand beneath your toes. That ‘far distant shore’ might not be as far as you think. So please do not labour under the delusion that you might reach it in three lives or ten. Don’t wait for that fortuitous rebirth. The shore is right in front of you. Keep going and you’ll get there. As with every other inevitable aspect of the sea of samsara so is this final truth – it like all things has an ending for us.

Perhaps to end then with a quote from Gary Lightbody, ‘And I’m glad that this has taken me so long, ’cause it’s the journey that made me so strong.’ (from Warmer Climate, Eyes Open 2006)

2 thoughts on “The sea of samsara

  1. Funny you should post this today when the waters are pouring down the hill next to my chapel, pooling just outside it, swirling across the road…I felt panic rising this morning, but when I went outside, in my leaking wellies, to examine the situation, I noticed that the water, although coming under my gate and up to my step, was actually pouring slightly down hill and over the road into the big pool. The situation looks alarming but is actually not too bad…
    I am not sure what the moral of this is – maybe that it’s always good to get out there and really look at the situation, rather than imagining disaster or catastrophising?

  2. Nicely written, very good. A request please browse through the categories on my blog it may be interesting for you.

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