Ocean Parable

I remember a Dharma talk (Buddhist sermon) story about a sailor lost at sea. I can’t recall the name of the priest who gave the talk. I would like to give him proper credit for the story. Maybe it is in the nature of religious development that we are nurtured more by our unconscious impressions than by our clear memories.1

I have expanded the story a little so that I can use it to capture the heart of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism—its doctrine and spirituality. Here is the story, an ocean metaphor.

At night a ship leaves the port of a tropical island. After many hours on the high seas a sailor falls overboard. No one on the ship notices that the man is missing, and the waves are choppy. It is hauntingly dark. The sailor paddles frantically to keep afloat.

He then starts to swim toward an island he saw before he fell overboard. He has lost all sense of direction. So he is not sure that he is heading the right way. Though he is a good swimmer, his arms and legs soon grow weary. His lungs are tired, and he gasps for air. The sailor feels lost and totally alone in the middle of the ocean. This could be the end for him. As despair overcomes him, his energy drains from him like sand from an hourglass. He begins to choke on the water slapping his face, and he can feel his body being dragged under.

At this instant he hears a voice from the depths of the ocean, “Let go. Let go of your striving! You’re fine just as you are! Namo Amida Butsu.”

The sailor hears the voice and stops his useless striving to swim by his own power. Instead, he turns over on his back with limbs outstretched as if he were in a backyard hammock on a lazy summer afternoon. He is overjoyed to find that the ocean holds him afloat without any effort on his part!

Now, the water feels warm and the waves are calm. The ocean that seemed ready to drag him under now caresses him. He is grateful and happy to know that he is all right. He realizes that he was fine all along. He just didn’t know it. The ocean has not changed at all. By changing his thinking, the sailor’s relationship with the ocean has changed. The sea changed from being a dangerous and frightening enemy to a friend who embraced and supported him.

The sailor knows that he cannot stay afloat forever in the middle of the ocean. If he had no worldly obligations, maybe he could afford to stay and rest in this joyful calm. But the image of his wife and small children waiting anxiously at home inspires him to try to reach the shore.

He begins to swim as before, but with one important difference. He now trusts the ocean as he would a caring and protecting loved one. He knows that whenever he becomes tired, he can let go, and the ocean will support him. More importantly, he now knows that while he swims, it is the power of the ocean, not his own power that keeps him afloat. Yes, he moves his limbs to swim, but he has learned he can stay afloat by not striving.

Now that he feels safe in the arms of the sea, the sailor can think about finding the island. He studies the positions of the stars and the moon and the direction of the wind. Using his training as a sailor, he imagines where the island might be and moves toward it. The swimmer has no guarantee that he has chosen the right direction, but he is now sure that the ocean will not let him down. Eventually he will reach the island. In appreciation for this newfound confidence and joy, the sailor hears himself uttering, “Namo Amida Butsu.”

This story, in a nutshell, captures the heart of Jodo-Shinshu spirituality. The drowning sailor symbolizes our human condition which is best explained by the Buddha’s realization, “We all experience suffering.” Our natural response is to attempt to swim out of our predicament. But no matter how strong and well-trained, we are unable to swim to the distant island. Try as we might, the effort is futile. At that very point, we are called to let go of our struggle and to trust the ocean. The result is a dramatic change, in which we experience release, joy and awareness. Within this Jodo-Shinshu spiritual transformation called “Shinjin awareness,” we are infused with an abiding sense of well-being and a spontaneous desire to assist others to reach happiness.

Shinran Shonin (1173–1263), the founder of the Jodo-Shinshu school, was extremely fond of the ocean imagery. He refers to the ocean in speaking about his own unenlightened, desperate predicament. He laments:

I know truly how grievous it is that I, Gutoku Shinran, am sinking in an immense ocean of desires and attachment and am lost in vast mountains of fame and advantage.

(Teachings, II, p. 279)

The same ocean imagery, however, expresses the joyous and liberating dimensions of his spiritual life. He speaks of the “Ocean-like Primal Vow” and “Sea of Inconceivable Virtue.” Elsewhere, he exclaims:

How joyous I am, my heart and mind being rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and my thoughts and feelings flowing within the inconceivable Dharma-ocean.

(Teachings, IV, p. 616)

This is the background. The meaning of some of the vocabulary used so far may be unclear, but I shall explain them in due course. Now let us begin to answer some of the questions most often asked.


1  More recently others have written about this metaphor, for example, Dr. Alfred Bloom, Rev. Masao and Rev. Tetsuo Unno.