Dangers at high sea (Master of Similes 2)

[Photo Copyright by Lookas PHT via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

There is a lot of redundancy build in the Pali Canon as one would expect from such a huge collection of teachings that were transmitted orally for hundreds of years.

The following simile can be found at different places, two of them would be Majjhima Nikaya 67 / Cātumasuttaṃ / The Discourse at Catuma and an abbreviated version in the Anguttara Nikaya / Book of fours / 122 (2. Uumibhayasuttaṃ – Fear of waves)

This teaching is directed at young monks who after ordination go back in contact with our conventional society. However, I find it also serves as a valuable reminder for every seriously practicing layperson.
(“In the same manner four fears should be expected by a person leaving the household to become a homeless.”)

The Buddha compares the monk striving out into samsara with a sailor, venturing out onto a large ocean. A journey on such a large body of water comes with a unforeseeable number of dangers the poor sailor has to face.

It is interesting how the Buddha throughout the Canon keeps referring to the spiritual journey of the holy life to the journey on, or the crossing of water. He compares his teachings with the vessel you use to cross the water, or he describes the people in samsara how they in deep confusion run up and down the waterline, not knowing how to proceed. (i.e. Dhammapada 85, 86). Among the similes involving water the >Simile of the Raft< is probably one of the most famous images taught by the Buddha. He compares his own teachings to a raft that could be used to cross the river, but should be discarded when one made it safely to the other shore. The raft parable appears in the Alagaddupama (Water Snake Simile) Sutta of the Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 22). In this sutta, the Buddha discusses the importance of learning the dhamma properly and the danger of clinging to views.

Anyway, in this case the person who leaves his sangha (aka the monastery) finds himself alone on the ocean facing four kinds of dangers. (“Bhikkhus, these four are fears to be expected by those ascending to waters. What four?”)

The first danger the sailor faces are Waves. Outside of his protective community the person on a spiritual path will be confronted with people unfamiliar with his practice and equipped with untrained minds. He might be subject to misunderstandings, ridicule or blame. It will be very tempting to react with ill will, anger and aversion. Once his mind gives rise to these destructive states, like a wave that overthrows his vessel, he might soon be thrown of his path and drown under the impact of this strong emotions.

The second danger the sailor faces are crocodiles. A creature like a crocodiles knows pretty much nothing besides eating. It will stop at nothing on its way to a feast and it will forget any caution of danger to satisfy the greed for food. Once it has eaten it will return to do nothing, until the greed rises again. In the very same way a person a spiritual path can become a victim to the greed for food. Especially at a point where the more gross defilements like sexual pleasure, drugs and the constant stream of visual and auditory stimuli are under control. All of these can at least be avoided. However we can never stop eating. The addiction to food is one that can never easily be overcome. Hence it is dangerous like a hungry crocodile.

The third danger the sailor faces are whirlpools. whirlpools will suck you down to your death. The Whirlpool is a synonym for the five strands of sensual pleasures. This would be the pleasure we get from seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and thinking. (Remember that in Buddhism the cognition of a sense information is categorized as a sense.) I find this image to be particularly fitting. The simile is absolutely perfect. See, at the very beginning you don’t even realize what is happening to you. You just feel a slight tug at your body in the water and as you are slowly dragged into a wide circle you might think: “Hey, that’s kind of nice… Wheee!” Then comes the moment where it dawns on you that you cannot leave anymore, but who wants to leave anyway, when the pleasure is so strong. By the time you realize that there is always more and stronger and faster pleasure waiting for you, you will be swallowed and vanish in samsara completely.
You might survive the waves. You might even survive the dangerous animals. Surviving the whirlpool, once you are in it to far is not going to happen. You have to avoid them completely. This simile is so accurate, it’s almost frightening.

The fourth danger the sailor faces are sharks. The shark serves as a synonym for the opposite sex. In the Canon this teaching was directed at monks, so the sharks are a synonym for women. However, it is rather obvious that this would be the other way around if the teaching was given to nuns. The idea is that whatever gender one is attracted to (may it be the opposite or the same) is the one sight that will grab a hold of you and will never let go again. Just like a shark who has found something to feed on. For someone not on a spiritual path this image maybe seems unnecessarily harsh, but for a monastic who is bound by the vow of celibacy this simile is spot on. Nothing gets a monk out of his robe faster then the object of sexual desire, metaphorically and literally. Sexual desire is so strong that it rightly deserves it’s own category next to the whirlpools. Sharks are by far the number one reason for a monastic to disrobe.

So, now you know. Whenever you venture out to sea, be aware of the four great dangers!

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