Sāgara, samudra

Sāgara (Skr. and Pali) and samudra (Skr.) or samudda (Pali) are the two words that early Buddhist writers used when describing huge water surfaces. As of the earliest translations into German, French and English sāgara and samudra have almost exclusively been rendered as ‘ocean’. More recent linguistic and geographical studies show however that during the rainy season rivers running over their floodplains also belonged to the category sāgara and samudra: a person standing on one bank could only imagine the further shore.
As a result of visions of this immensity of samudra[s] (samudda[s]) stories and parables came into existence. We know a story in which the sāgara/samudra is the recipient of anything and everything without showing preferences. It symbolises the epithome of equanimity. There is another story in which even the slightest drop of water eventually dissolves into this ocean — and is thus liberated. Nevertheless, this latter image is basically a Hinduïstic concept, as we shall see below.

“It is like the water flowing from the lake Heatless; by four great river currents it suffices the continent, inexhaustible, ever increasing, benefiting infinite beings, and finally pours into the great ocean: that water from the very beginning is headed for the ocean.”

This short passages is to be found in the Avatámaka sūtra [Garland sūtra], the book The Ten Stages. That is to say, it at least belongs to the second or later Tibetan inspired version translated under the supervision of Shiksha-nanda (652-710). Shikshananda headed the royal translation bureau in the northern Chinese capital of Luoyang. It is possible, and even highly likely that in his translation office there were Tibetans among his scribes who had finished their studies at Nalanda in Northern India but who were not yet prepared to go back to the precarious living conditions in Tibet.

An earlier Avatámaka sūtra translation, this time under the supervision of Buddha-bhadra (359-430), came to be written (and printed) in Xi’an, another former capital of Northern China.
Nalanda as “university” may have existed in Buddhabhadra’s 4th-5th Cent., but as Buddhism entered Tibet (and today’s Bhutan) not before the 6th Cent., it is highly unlikely that Tibetan Buddhist monks were present in Buddhabhadra’s translation office. Hence the shortness of the Buddhabhadra-version as compared to Shikshananda’s manuscript. It lacked at least the versified resumés of the later extended version. We may assume that Shikshananda’s translation received additions and embellishments written by Tibetans who remembered “Lake Heatless”, i.e. Lake Manasarovar with its four great rivers. Manasarovar is also called Anotatta (Pali), Anavatapta or Manasa (Skr.).


To take up the image of ‘heatless’ (Heat, root: ‘tap‘). The Advaita-tradition of Hinduïsm has a saying that runs as follows: “the heatless, smokeless light of the Divine Effulgence, of “Vedanta Incarnate“. Whether the “heatless” in this sentence should rather be compared with the “tapas“, the extreme physical effort of the saintly sadhu, which thus is rejected, is a discussion that we will leave in the capable hands of Hindu scholars.

Dissolving into the ocean. The said Advaita-tradition is all about stressing the concept of non-duality, i.e. the One.
In particular the Buddhist Lankāvatāra sūtra contradicts this concept of Oneness in the Hinduïstic sense of the word. Or rather, becoming One is strongly rejected. The “Lanka” rather stresses a “not-two = not-two; it is not One either”. Chapter III illustrates it in different ways. E.g.:
“There is an exalted state of inner attainment which does not fall into the dualism of oneness and otherness, of bothness and not-bothness; …” (III, 172)

“There is nothing but that which is seen of the Mind itself, the duality too is of the Mind; …” (III, 181, 65)

“… some philosophers … declare this to be Nirvāna: that there is a primary substance, there is a supreme soul, and they are seen differently by each, and that they produce all things from the transformations of the qualities. … All these view … are not in accord with logic, nor are they acceptable to the wise.” (III, 183-184 Tr. D.T. Suzuki)

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