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The Specific Characteristics of the Sea in the Buddhadharma

Thích Trừng Sỹ

Sakyāmuni Buddha, the perfectly awakened and enlightened Master, has taught the wonderful Dharma in order to bring authentic peacefulness and happiness to devas and human beings.  His teachings, which stress deeply humane features, have practical application in the present, have value beyond time, and are suitable for people of all levels of the ability, cultivation, and enlightenment of every sentient being on this planet.

As you know, a good teacher often points out illuminating examples for hearers and learners to easily understand and apply his teachings to their daily lives. Likewise, in the period when the Buddha was teaching His Dharma, in order that His teachings can be easily understood by all in the communities, He put forth many specific and different examples and metaphors, in which were contained the specific teachings found in the Three Baskets of Buddhist canonical Scriptures (Sutras, Vinaya and Abhidharma), especially in the Agama Sutras.

In the Ekottarikàgama Sutra, there are many principles to be found, but especially profound truths may be found in the writing “There are the eight specific characteristics of the sea,[1] relating the dialogue occurring between the Buddha and a Brahman.  These eight characteristics, which are presented in the form of metaphors, comparisons and contrasts, are related to Buddha Dharma very intimately. So here the writer will expand upon the meanings and contents of each of the above characteristics. He would like to invite you all to happily follow along with him together as follows:

  1. A beach does not have an abyss.
  2. The ocean is immensely vast.
  3. The sea never contains a corpse.
  4. The sea is welcome to receive all the streams of water.
  5. The sea is neither more nor less full.
  6. Sea water has a uniquely salty taste.
  7. The sea nurtures aquatic species.
  8. The sea contains many types of treasures.


1. A beach does not have an abyss.

When swimming, we swim from shallow to deep water gradually. Similarly, when having good conditions to be in contact with the Buddhadharma, we start to cultivate, to learn from lower to higher levels, to gain enlightenment and freedom step by step, one degree at a time, transforming slowly and steadily from normal beings to holy beings, from suffering to joyfulness and happiness.

Moreover, the teachings are preached and presented by the Buddha and His holy disciples from the basic methods to the developing methods. They have practical value in the present and conform with the abilities of cultivation, learning, and realization of every being.  Those who have enough good conditions to contact, inquire, and practice the Dharma, are never lost and drowned in it. Conversely, they can enjoy peaceful and happy flowers and fruits right here and now in the present life.


2. The ocean is immensely vast

We know that the river which is small and narrow is limited. Conversely, the ocean which is immense and vast is unlimited.  In regard to this point, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France, there is a very popular meditation song with the title “The River and the Sea.[2]

“I have never seen the sea

I only know a stream of a river

But I heard a teacher tell

The sea is wider than the river

The sea is vast

The immensity of blue sea is salty concentration

A human life is like the river

If anyone lives for himself or herself, the heart is narrower than the river

If anyone lives for all people, the heart is vast.


I have never seen the sea

I only know the stream of the river

But I heard the teacher tell

Do not let your heart be as narrow as the river

Let your heart widen immensity 

The immensity of blue sea is salty concentration

The human life is like the river

If anyone lives for himself or herself, the heart is narrower than the river

If anyone lives for all people, the heart is vast.


I have never seen the Buddha

I only know his picture

But I heard the teacher tell

The Buddha is in the mind

The Buddha is in the mind

Stay in all people

If anyone lives for himself or herself, the Buddha is hidden away

If anyone lives for all people, the Buddha shows everywhere.”


The sea symbolizes the mind of freedom, immensity, and selflessness; the river represents the mind of attachment, narrowness, and selfishness.  The purpose of cultivation is to recognize and transform the mind of attachment, narrowness, and selfishness into the mind of selflessness, freedom, immensity, vastness, like the sea.

The above song is to remind each of us to try to lead a life of mindfulness and awareness, solidity and freedom by applying the Buddha Dharma in our daily lives in order to bring peacefulness and happiness to our fellow beings right here and right now in this lifetime.

The meaning of the vast sea in the Buddha Dharma is that it contains all the substances of forgiveness, tolerance, generosity, acceptance, transformation, nourishment, healing, steadiness, freedom, peacefulness, blissfulness, etc.  Those who have enough good conditions to live to apply and practice the Dharma of the World-Honored One, have the capacity to taste the flavor of peacefulness and liberation, and achieve equality and equanimity.


3. The sea never contains a corpse

The sea referred to here is understood as the Dharma of the World-Honored One; the corpse is understood as misfortune, suffering, afflictions of desire, anger, delusion, wrong view, wrong thought, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong effort, wrong mindfulness, and wrong concentration.  The sea is a symbol for Buddha nature, Bodhicitta, i.e. the mind of insight; the corpse is a symbol for ghost nature, the mind of defilement, i.e. the mind of suffering.

The World-Honored One’s Dharma, which is the Dharma of enlightenment and awareness, has never contained the seeds of defilements, negativity, misfortune and distress, and vice versa; all the Buddha’s teachings contain the substances of steadiness and calm, joyfulness and happiness, enlightenment and liberation.

We know that those who do not cultivate themselves well often have a scornful mind, criticize other people, lose the mind of Bodhi, freedom, calm, and that of easiness. Their lives are usually dominated and controlled by defilements and distress; their bodies and minds are not peaceful, gentle, and at ease with the world.

Good cultivators that know to apply and practice the Buddha Dharma in their daily lives lead their lives of mindfulness and awareness, solidity and calmness, and have the ability to eliminate, overcome, and transform the negative seed into the positive seed, the unwholesome seed into the wholesome seed, the seed of affliction into the seed of Bodhicitta, the seed of suffering into the seed of bliss, etc. These people have their hearts full of joy, love, forgiveness, sympathy, help and compassion for the difficulties and suffering of themselves and others.

Indeed, we can recognize that our suffering is mainly all people’s suffering, and vice versa, our happiness is mainly their happiness, and our peacefulness is principally their peacefulness. Understanding and practicing so, we have the capacity to bring authentically joyful and blissful flowers and fruits to other people and ourselves right in this lifetime.

Moreover, as you know, when the corpse drifts in the sea, it will be sunk by sea water, or be washed ashore. This point implies that if we live without practicing mindfulness and awareness, we live no differently from the corpse. We can do unwholesome things such as killing, stealing, adultery, lying, using intoxicants, etc.  Certainly, we will be driven onto the shore of birth and death, and be dominated by defilements and sufferings.

Clearly aware of these foregoing things, we strive to lead our lives of mindfulness and awareness, to not do evil, to do good, to purify our peaceful bodies and minds by applying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives in order to bring joyful and blissful flowers and fruits to the many. We learn to live with action, aspiration and the heart of love, almsgiving, animal release, faithfulness, honesty, mindfulness, awareness, etc. Understanding and doing so, we not only help our relatives, loved ones and ourselves to have the ability to escape from the sea of birth and death, to overcome defilements, to transform suffering, but also to help other people and ourselves to swim to the shore of authentic peacefulness and happiness right here in this world.


4. The sea is welcome to receive all the streams of water

We know the sea has the capacity to welcome and to receive and contain all the streams of clean water, dirty water, muddy water, rain water, etc., flowing from hundreds of thousands of rivers, springs, ponds, lakes, and so on.  Likewise, anciently as well as presently, the Dharma of the World Honored One has the ability not only to embrace, overcome and dominate all the doctrines and philosophical theories in the world, including other spiritual cultures and traditions, but also to teach and save kings, mandarins, court officials, servants, the rich, the poor, prisoners, criminal people, white people, black people, brown people, red people, including courtesans and robbers, etc.  Those who have the opportunity to learn and practice the Buddha’s teachings in their daily lives, generate peacefulness and happiness, which makes their bodies and minds calm and cool.


5. The sea is neither more nor less full

You know that all the water currents of rivers, canals, ponds, lakes, etc. flow into the ocean, but the sea remains neither more nor less full, neither larger nor smaller, neither higher nor lower.  Likewise, in Buddhism, there are so many kinds of different people, including scientists, spiritual leaders, religious leaders, ethicists, educators, etc., who are fortunate enough to experience the opportunity to cultivate, apply, and practice the Buddha Dharma in various periods from one week, two weeks, three weeks, one month, two months, three months, one year, two years, three years, and so on. Yet these types of different people have felt, enjoyed and tasted the flavors of the peaceful Dharma in the same manner.  From here, their Buddha natures, Buddha minds, Buddha aspirations, and Buddha actions become suddenly illuminated.  

The sea referred to here means “Buddha nature” which is available in each of us. The Buddha, first of all, means the awakened Person with complete awareness, the peaceful Person who generates peacefulness, the firm Person who radiates firmness, the calm Person who exudes calm, etc. Nature means “Mind.” When we feel and taste the peaceful Dharma by practicing and applying the Buddhadharma in our daily lives, our minds become illuminated and our bodies become peaceful.  We have the capability to overcome afflictions, transform suffering, and obtain awareness, peacefulness, steadiness, and calm right here and right now in the present life. The “Buddha nature” in us appears evident.

The sea is neither full nor less full” also means that “Buddha nature” is no greater in a holy person than in a normal human being.  This point is important; it is only because our human minds are obscured by ignorance and defilements that we cannot see our own “Buddha nature.”  Likewise, “Buddha nature” symbolizes “Full Moon.” Its light, which cannot be seen when obscured by a cloud, can be observed when the wind blows and the cloud drifts.  Then the light of the “Full Moon” becomes evident.   The “wind” is here meant to stand for cultivation and practice of the Buddhadharma. The “cloud” is symbolic of ignorance and defilements.

Thanks to diligently practicing the Buddhadharma, living our lives of mindfulness and awareness, we have the capacity to dispel ignorance and extinguish afflictions. At that time, ignorance disappears, i.e. wisdom appears. We see “Buddha nature;” the light of insight in us becomes evident. The seed of enlightenment in us get awakened and takes root.  “Buddha nature,” the light of insight, and the seeds of enlightenment in us, not only have the ability to offer flowers and fruits of understanding and love to the many, but also “peaceful view, peaceful thought, peaceful speech, peaceful action, peaceful livelihood, peaceful diligence, peaceful mindfulness, peaceful maintained concentration of both body and mind[3]” to all living beings. Understanding and acting so, we become peaceful messengers to contribute to building persons of happiness, families of joyfulness, societies of peace, and human beings of peaceful joy over the planet.


6. Sea water has a uniquely salty taste

Although rain water, river water, spring water, fresh water, muddy water, dirty water, etc., flows into the ocean, all the different kinds of water become the sea water and have a uniquely salty taste. Likewise, in all the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples, or in all the training and learning methods of Buddhism, whether you follow Theravāda or Mahayāna Buddhism, whether you practice the method of Meditation or that of Pure Land, enlightenment and liberation are still the key factors, peacefulness, and happiness for other people and for yourselves are still the topmost factor.


7. The sea nurtures aquatic species

In the space of immense vastness, the sea contains and nourishes countless aquatic species like shrimp, crab, fish, etc.  Likewise, in the historical length of nearly three thousand years, Buddhism and its Dharma have had the capacity to gather, accept, and teach the wise, the unwise, the rich, the poor, scholars, unlearned people, etc.  Those who cultivate, learn the Buddhadharma diligently, lead their lives of mindfulness and awareness, steadiness and freedom, and can reap peaceful and happy flowers and fruits for other people and themselves right in this lifetime.


8. The sea contains many types of treasures

In the ocean, there are countless types of pearls, jewels like gold, diamonds, crystals, amber, etc.  Likewise, in Buddhism, there are innumerable kinds of beings born, some from eggs, some from fetus, some from moisture, and some from metamorphosis.[4] Among the various kinds of those beings, there are awakened ones, there are enlightened ones, there are holy people, there are human beings, etc. Although being human beings, we are fortunate to have good opportunities to learn Buddhism, hear the Dharma, and taste the flavors of its peace.  Buddha nature and the light of insight in us become illuminated, Bodhicitta in us becomes alive and awakened. From here, we each become fresh and beautiful flowers to offer ourselves to life and to help life add flavors and colors.  Those who understand and practice like this deserve to be treasured by the world like gold, like diamonds, crystal, amber, etc., in this life.

In brief, through what is mentioned above, we can see that the specific characteristics of the sea represent Buddhism, its Dharma, preachers of the Dharma, protectors of the Dharma. These specific characteristics are only found in Buddhism; apart from it, they are not easily found in other religions and philosophical theories. Although these specific characteristics have been present in the world for nearly three thousand years, their values, which are very practical in the present, are timeless, in accord with science and society today, have the capacity to extinguish afflictions, and to lead practitioners to their peaceful bodies and minds.  Understanding, applying and practicing the specific characteristics of the Buddhadharma in our daily lives diligently and mindfully, we can bring peacefulness and happiness to the many, and at the same time, we can also contribute to building a realm of a heaven and a pure land right here in the world.


May you all be well, happy, healthy, and peaceful in the Dharma



[1]  Xem Tăng Nhất A Hàm – Tám Pháp → 42. Phẩm Tám Nạn → Kinh Số 4

    Xem http://www.phatviet.com/dichthuat/kinhtang/Tangnhat_A_ham/Tn_00.htm

 Xem Tiểu Bộ → Kinh Phật Tự Thuyết ↔ Cảm Hứng Ngữ (V – Ud 51) / See Khuddhaka Nikaya I V Udàna

    Xem http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/uni/u-kinh-tieubo1/tb13-ptt2.htm

[2] Ven. Thích Pháp Hòa 

[3] See the Noble Eightfold Path (Sanskrit: āryāṣṭāgamārga   / Pāli: Ariya-Atthangika-Magga )

[4] See http://www.purifymind.com/DiamondSutraConze.htm

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