Waves and Water: a Buddhist metaphor

Ryōhen (良遍, 1194-1252), was a prominent Hossō scholar and faithful disciple of Jōkei, often credited as a reformer of Hossō Buddhism during the medieval period in Japanese Buddhist history. In James L. Ford’s book on Jokei and Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which I have been enjoying as of late, Professor Ford quotes this famous Hossō sect “restorer” of the 13th century who describes the famous Buddhist metaphor of waves and water succinctly (Japanese terms added by Prof. Ford):

Although there seem to be a multitude of waves, it is not a real multitude, for the waves are causally produced (enshō), phantom-like (nyogen) dharmas that defy the comprehension of the unenlightened mind. If the waves were unchanging, real (kenjitsu) objects they would be completely different from water. But since the waves are nonsubstantial (koke), they are in harmony (sōwa) with the water and are neither completely identical to, nor completely different from, it (fusoku furi). From this analogy, you can understand the relationship between phenomena and their underlying substance. (pg. 60)

The key to understanding this is that phenomena (things, thoughts, feelings, ideas, everything) exists like the waves. It’s existence is contingent on external factors (like the wind and water), and therefore temporary, not permanent. They are causally produced, in other words. Once those external factors are no longer in harmony, the phenomena in question will change or fade.

The ‘underlying’ substance here is not meant to imply ‘pantheism’ or ‘oneness’ (in the New Age sense), but rather the causes and conditions that cause something to arise. All waves, like all phenomena, have a commonality of having a contingent, temporary existence. Such phenomena are not entirely separate in existence, but aren’t “one” either. The truth lies somewhere in between.

This is what Buddhism defines as “emptiness” (e.g. of a permanent, separate nature) or in the classic Sanskrit term “sunyata” (pronounced ‘shoon-yata’). In the Heart Sutra text, one of the most fundamental to East Asian Buddhism, this is all summed up very succinctly:

色 不 異 空
shiki fu i ku
空 不 異 色
ku fu i shiki
色 即 是 空
shiki soku ze ku
空 即 是 色
ku soku ze shiki

Which means something like: Form is not different than emptiness; Emptiness is not different from Form. Indeed, form is emptiness; Emptiness is form.

So when you have angry thoughts, or see something you don’t like, just remember the water and wave analogy. You can’t be angry if you don’t have angry thoughts. ;) For the good things in life, remember that they too are waves and will only stay around if conditions allow them to do so. Reflection on such things I hope will lead people to a more balanced view of the world and self.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

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2 Comments on “Waves and Water: a Buddhist metaphor”

  1. Kendall says:

    This idea is one that continues to sick in with me and I have had growing success in applying it to life. it’s definitely something that takes time to truly learn and understand. It’s only when you start applying it to your life that you really get it. Becoming more comfortable with it has allowed me to better keep emotions in check and to not overreact to life, especially anger. I haven’t been angry in years, even when the raccoons ram-sacked my campsite and stole my food. I just snickered and pictured a bunch raccoons sitting around munching my food.

    Nice metaphor. It’s an example that helps you understand the whole emptiness stuff that trips up so many Western folk. I think I will copy it off as examples to help people get it.

  2. Doug says:

    Hi Kendall,

    Racoons ransacking your food is kind of funny. :) Recently, my little one kicked me really hard in the groin as only little kids can do, and while writhing in pain (it really hurt), I somehow found myself laughing as it was perfect comedy material. Amazing how things can change with a change in viewpoint and understanding. ;)

    But yeah, Buddhism can be explained upfront, but it sure takes a long time to internalize it sufficiently. :-p

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