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Become Ocean 1: The ocean in meditation and contemplative neuroscience

My idea of relaxation is being on the West Coast of the Algarve in Portugal. Quite often I just sit there and watch the waves, as my sense of Self slowly reduces its intensity and there is only ONE appearance.

This post is about one of the most important teaching metaphors in Buddhism: the "Ocean and Wave" metaphor.

It is a teaching device to let the meditator experience "non-duality", ie a state where the felt sense of separation between Self and Non-Self is absent or diminished, if only temporarily.

It is also a metaphor, whose effect on the brain has been researched using EEG technology.

The Ocean and Wave metaphor in meditation and contemplative neuroscience

In Buddhist meditation tradition, in this analogy

  • the ocean represents the wide space of awareness or consciousness (terminology may vary)

  • the waves stand for all mental events: sensations, emotions, and thoughts, concepts, stories, feelings, memories, anticipations etc.

  • however, the waves (mental events) are not separate from the ocean (awareness), in fact, they ARE the ocean in the same way that the ocean IS its waves.

In psychological praxis, the metaphor is calming for me, as I drop the distinction between good waves and bad waves, small or big waves, crashing or gentle waves. As everything becomes waves that arise and subside again, forever, apparently arising from nowhere.

The force and immediacy of this metaphor have convinced even Sam Harris to use it in one of this Daily Meditations of the Waking Up app. He continues: "It's not often that I ask you to invoke a concept in this way, but it can be helpful. And then let go of it. "

The Ocean and Wave metaphor in Daniel P Brown´s meditation stage model

The Ocean and Wave metaphor, in Daniel P Brown´s model of Mahamudra meditation stages, is the first level of the One-Taste stage.

The subsequent levels are "Automatic Self Liberation" and "Non-Meditation". The table below is an overview.


Description / definition


The metaphor and "view" described in this post

​The immediate recognition of mental events as soon as they arise and are re-cognised as "empty", ie as fabrications


​The stage where the meditator has dropped all meditation strategies - when there is no more meditator as separate Self doing the meditation

1. Ocean and waves in meditation

The ocean and wave metaphor is an essential element of teaching in several Buddhist traditions such as Mahamudra and Dzog Chen. It is the standard teaching metaphor of the poet Milarepa, and it has a long tradition.

The Ocean is only one of the ways in which the water element is used metaphorically. Other uses are river, lake etc.


The following quote is from the Lankavatara Sutra. I quote it here in two different translations, in the original formatting by the authors.

Lankavatara Sutra, Ocean and Wave metaphor quoted in Culadasa, The Mind Illuminated

Then the Blessed One summarized the teaching in these verses:

“Just like waves on the ocean

are stirred by wind

and dance across its surface,

never stopping for a moment,

the Ocean of the Unconscious

is stirred by the winds of external events

and made to dance with waves of Consciousness

in all their multiplicity.

Blue and red and other colors,

salt, conch shell, milk and honey,

the fragrance of fruit and flowers,

and rays of the sun and moon—

like the ocean and its waves,

they are neither separate nor the same.

The seven kinds of Consciousness

arise from the Unconscious mind.

Just as different kinds of waves

arise from the ocean,

different kinds of Consciousness

arise from the Unconscious Mind.

Though the Unconscious, the Narrator,

and the Consciousnesses

all take different forms,

these eight are one and the same,

no seer apart from the seen.

Just as the ocean and its waves cannot be separated,

so too in the mind the Unconscious and the Consciousnesses

cannot be separated.

Karma accumulates in the Unconscious

through the reflections of the Narrator

and the volitions of the Discriminating Mind,

from a world given form by the five Sensory Minds.” Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, IX (46). ((Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p. 219)

Lankavatara Sutra, Ocean and Wave metaphor translated by Red Pine

The Bhagavan then repeated the meaning of this in verse:

1. “Just like waves in a boundless sea / blown by a powerful wind / breakers in a black expanse / they never for a moment cease

2. In the Ocean of Alaya / stirred by the wind of externality / wave after wave of consciousness / breaks and swells again

3. Blue and red and every color / milk and sugar and conch shells161 / fragrances and fruits and flowers / the sun and moon and light

4. Like the ocean and its waves / are neither separate nor not separate / seven forms of consciousness / rise together with the mind162

5. Like the ever-changing sea / gives rise to different waves / repository consciousness / gives rise to different forms163

6. Mind, will, and consciousness / these refer to different forms / but forms devoid of differences / no seer or thing seen164

7. As the ocean and its waves / cannot be divided / the mind and the forms of consciousness / cannot be separated 8.1he mind is what gathers karma / the will considers what is gathered / the forms

(Pine, 2012, p. 79)

A digression about metaphors

Why are metaphors used extensively? It is difficult for meditation teachers (actually, for anyone) to describe mystic states of one-ness, or of non-duality, to those who have not experienced them yet. So, how to guide students to those experiences/states they never had?

By their very nature, which is not like our unreflected everyday experience, such experience seems to be ineffable, inexpressible.

However, as Daniel P Brown says in "Pointing out the Great Way", this is wrong: in the West, we have not developed a precise vocabulary for the physical and mental characteristics of extraordinary states. The Tibetan meditation culture, in contrast, has built a precise language for extraordinary states.

One reason for the alleged ineffability is our normal way of communicating. In language, the difficulty is firmly embedded within a reference system of a Self that is experienced as separate from Other, from "out there". It is a dualistic frame of reference. For example, "looking" presupposes a looker and something looked at. In Tibetan Buddhism, in contrast, there is "mind only". Everything is mind (actually its a bit more complex than that, but let's disregard it for now)

Our experienced perceptual dualism can be undone through meditation techniques. The meditator can "become" looker and looked-at, and awareness of this all simultaneously

Metaphors are indirect ways to steer the students' minds toward this, or other, goals. The mind can make use of metaphors in very creative ways, opening up new pathways and associations - something every contemporary hypnotist knows.

For example, metaphors were a key tool in the famous hypnotist Milton Erickson's hypnotic set of hypnotic techniques. It is therefore not surprising that the Mahamudra pointing out teaching methods and hypnosis have some commonalities.

Some of the standard teaching metaphors in Buddhist meditation are:

  • Ocean and Wave ( although I don´t understand how Tibetan cave yogis could translate an ocean metaphor into an inner representation!)

  • Mountain

  • Sun and Clouds

  • Mirage, City in the Sky

  • Mirror

  • Space (for the awakened mind)

  • Lamp / Butterlamp

  • Animals (dog, lion, garuda)

  • Dreams

  • Water bubbles

  • Rainbow

  • Reflections in a mirror

  • More... see my post.

The traditional Tibetan metaphors are mostly based on natural elements. Today, more contemporary and technical metaphors are usually added.

  • Cars and planes

  • Electronic devices

  • Laser sword

  • Sailboat

  • Information processing

There is more on Buddhist teaching metaphors in my post on metaphors.

The ocean and wave metaphor

The metaphor of ocean and wave is used frequently by Daniel P Brown in his 6-day meditation retreats. Phenomenologically, the meditator or meditation group is guided, using precise so-called pointing out instructions, to change their lookout position as vast, timeless, changeless, boundless awareness. The metaphor for this is the ocean and its waves. This is Brown's abstract description:

...the practitioner refines one’s awareness so as to operate from a perspective of awareness beyond time and spatialization wherein phenomena of consciousness are experienced as an undulating timeless, ocean-like awareness within which events come and go like waves arising and passing in an ocean. Events are thus viewed from the vantage point of a changeless, vast awareness. Awareness of the field "opens up" Once this high-resolution perception is stable the practitioner recalibrates once again to a coarse-grain perception.

Keith Dowman in "Dzogchen Non-Meditation" says it poetically like this:

The second metaphor for the freely-resting nature of mind is ‘ocean’. Leaving the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ behind, aware of the deceptive nature of control of either the mind or the elements, of circumstance or condition, sensory perception, either internal or external, is like the ocean, calm and imperturbable in its depths and in constant movement on its surface. The depths where no light shines and no life moves have no form or quality; the surface may sometimes appear calm but the rollers are never still – they move either in harmony or in rough and wild chaos. What is quite clear is that no mind controls the ocean. It moves without apparent logic or reason. The sensory fields have no center, and no controller determines their contents. The ocean is a metaphor for the mind and also for the sensory fields, particularly the visual sensory field. The visual field has breadth and depth and is global in shape with its genesis in the eyes. Like the ocean, this field can be still, although its calmness is deceptive as it may become rough and violent in a moment. This is our field of meditation.

The student is not asked to imagine the ever-present sound of the ocean. Instead, music is used as a support tool. This combination overlaps with the use of music in traditional shamanic ceremonies and the evolving psychedelic therapy.

The ocean in an original text


To link back the 2020 retreat to the tradition, here is an old quote (bold is original, the other text is commentary by the translator). Here I have selected a verse of Vairotsana.

"That ultimate space that is like the ocean that gives rise to the multiplicity of things; creative potential, coextensive with space, is unpredictable in the forms that it takes.
The ocean is the source of all variety. Still, in its depths, its surface spontaneously takes on all peaceful and wrathful forms representing every kind of human experience. Just as the shape of the ocean’s surface is capricious and variable, so the form of creation, the shape of our experience, is changeable, variable, and unpredictable. The creativity of the pure essence of the mind is all-pervading like space, and where it appears to manifest as this or that is always uncertain.
In the pure essence of mind, the ultimate sovereign samadhi arises spontaneously, and vision is like a vast ocean, unstructured, as extensive as space.
The creative dynamic of the pure essence of the mind is ubiquitous, although its point of apparent manifestation is uncertain. In every adventitious thought or construct, the ultimate samadhi always arises without concentration or relaxation. With that, then, vision is like a vast ocean or like the sky. Vision has no structure, or it is simultaneously structured and destructured. Thought-free with the sense of sameness, it is coextensive with space. That is the vision."

The ocean is used in particular as a teaching device or pointing out tool to ease the student into a point of observation that is calm.