Oghataraṇasutta: Crossing the Flood

(In my understanding) In this Sutta the Path to Nirvana is compared to “crossing a flood”

Crossing the Flood

Devatā asked the Buddha “Good sir, how did you cross the flood?”
Buddha’s reply was “Neither standing nor swimming, sir, I crossed the flood.”
“When I stood still, I went under. And when I swam, I was swept away. That’s how I crossed the flood neither standing nor swimming.”

Anyone can explain this simile please? Or share a link to an explanation of the sutta.
With Metta

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Here are Bhante Bodhi’s notes:

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Sadhu Sadhu… Much merit for sharing this explanation. Paragraph 3 explains Buddha’s answer to the Devatha…

Sadhu Sadhu… Much merit for sharing this explanation. Paragraph 3 (starting in page 2) explains Buddha’s answer to the Devata…

Happy to help. Just out of curiosity, did you read that sutta recently in the daily sutta emails?


Yes… that’s how I came across this Sutta… Glad I subscribed to this sutta emails. Much Merits to all those who share the Dhamma.


The suttas speak in the language of the dhamma, and by comparison with relevant others the meaning can be pieced together (this is the method recomended by the Buddha in Majhima Nikaya 95). The meaning of the terminology and stages in Samyutta Nikaya 1.1 is explained in Anguttara Nikaya 4.5.

In Samyutta Nikaya 1.1 the Buddha speaks from the arahant’s viewpoint, whereas in Anguttara Nikaya 4.5 the view is of the whole path. The clue to the level is found in the personnel involved, and a conversation where the Buddha is instructing a devata will be high-level, contrasted with suttas delivered to laypeople or junior monks, which are more appropriate to western lay practitioners. For example Majhima Nikaya 44 between a nun and a layperson points out the noble eightfold path is conditioned, referring to the first three stages mentioned in Anguttara Nikaya 4.5

I watched a YouTube video with @sujato doing a Q&A for a retreat. For context, at about the 24:12 point he talks about translating with what he calls The Principle of Least Meaning. At about the 26:57 point he applies it to a sutta that tells of a group of Brahmins inquiring about crossing the flood. This may help in learning more about crossing the flood.

:face_with_monocle: :grinning:

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Sadhu sadhu for your kindness to he
P me understand the Dhamma. Much merit.

So I’m still confused. If I am alone in a flood of riptide, I have some choices:

  • standing (halting/standing)
  • swim to shore (struggling and dying)
  • treading water (swept out to sea and dying of exposure)
  • swimming parallel to shore till calmer currents prevail and permit swimming to the shore (swimming and living)

Only one of these leads to the shore. The others lead to suffering and/or death.

Bhante @sujato, Ven. Bodhi’s “struggling” seems to adhere to the principle of least meaning without contradiction. However, “nor swimming” introduces contradictory meaning with the negation stated with its metaphor. :face_with_head_bandage:

My friend, a strong swimmer, was caught in a riptide and almost died. I would never advise him to “not swim”. In fact I yelled at him after the fact to swim parallel to shore. He did not know about that and was surprised.


The floods are sensual desire, lust for existence, views and ignorance. For the worldly person these “flood” into our everyday perception of the world, colouring it and distorting it.


This thought didn’t occur to me, perhaps because I am not familiar with riptides. And thinking about it a bit more, the Buddha probably also wasn’t. He didn’t live close to the ocean, and probably never saw a seashore in his life. Oceans occur in the Suttas rather as far away things known only through hearsay and legends.

So perhaps the main focus of the simile isn’t the riptide after all?


I see it like this: the floods are the inner drifts that tend to overwhelm the mind when arising. That moment the mind gets lost in conceiving. Our attention is in the head now. Being lost in conceiving, in a cinematic reality, how it understands things at that very moment, is wrong, but felt as very real and true at that moment. Like being lost in a movie or book and experiencing all a very real and true.
Buddha talks about this as the magical quality of the stream of the mental vinnana’s. They create a cinematic reality, not very different from how a movie is created.

Neither standing, i believe, refers to: One must not block the inner floods totally and resist the flow, like one is a pole in a strong stream, resisting very strongly, like blocking the floods totally, because then one will go under. Blocking the inner drifts totally, using a lot of force, that turns out wrong. One will go under. Because, that what one resists grows in power.

Sometimes the Buddha instructs strong resistance but never as the most skillful means to deal with drifts. One can try, for example, to surpress the sexual desires very strongly, but the chance is big, one day, it will totally explode and one will go under in this kama raga and do the most perverse things. This has happened to so many people who supressed drift. It probably results in misery.

Nor swimming, i believe refers to: One must also not choose to go along with the inner floods while arising, because then you are really swept away. Your wisdom, your inner shame, your conscience, your dignity, you good health, your peace of mind, all is swept away.

In practise one must find a middle way to deal with the floods. The middle way i see as the Path of wisdom described in the sutta’s. One must find the Path that naturally weakens the floods and makes an end to these drifts, the Noble Path.

Maybe this makes sense, who knows :slight_smile:


Oh I see. Your suggestion is to consider standing/swimming as polar opposites where a middle blend can be found. Yes. I’d like to do that!

The trouble is that as a child I swam in the ocean (that big flood) often. As a puny speck of humanity floating on the vast ocean, standing was only a possibility in the safety of the distant shore. In the ocean one survives by swimming or treading water (i.e., halting but not standing, swimming cautiously without straining). So neither end of this standing/swimming metaphor works for me.

However, as an ocean swimmer, Ven. Bodhi’s translation does actually work for me. The following is actually excellent advice for ocean swimmers, since by aiming for the shore one strains against the riptide. And in Ven. Bodhi’s translation, there is also a middle ground to be found.

“By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.”

Since Bhante @Sujato is Australian, he is well acquainted with ocean waters and their dangers. Bhante is also well acquainted with Ven. Bodhi. Therefore I can only logically conclude that I am incapable of discerning the subtle insight that Bhante is trying to allow by his translation and use of the swimming metaphor. I am lost. :cry:


Oke, thank you.

Here in the Netherlands we are very familiar with water and almost every child learns to swimm. At school there were also special lessons. The whole class of kids on their bikes to the swimming pool with a lot of noise. Buddha would probably think; this kids-Sangha is very noisy :slight_smile:
oh oh, what a happy chaos.

But there is nothing one can do with riptides. We know them here very well. People get trapped in this strong streams and even the best of swimmers are incapable to get ashore. Impossible. Some panic or exhaust themselves and they can die. Every year such things happen. Our coastguards are alert on this.

Practise can, i think, also be to exhausting when there is to much straining. I feel there must also be some element of joy, some element of vitaly.

In the case one enters a riptide we are adviced here one must just float along with the riptide. Some distance from the shore it stops. Then one has to swimm crosswise a while and one can come ashore quit easily again. There is no way one can come ashore with effort. One will exhaust oneself and die.

For myself i see that it is very important not to strain to much, for example, with desires for nice tastes, sex, etc. It is not helpful at all for me to put myself on a crashdiet and renounce everything that always brought delight. I will only get very tense. It does not work this way for me. I cannot force dispassion upon myself.

Buddha also emphasizes that to give up the pleasure of the senses one needs, as it were, other food, other nourishment, the nourishment of a pleasant abiding here and now that is not based upon sensuality. One can try to abandon all ways one has fed oneself during this life, but probably you only meet much misery. stress will probably become intolerable.

There is a middle way between forcing to much and doing nothing.

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That’s a fascinating subtlety! Indeed that would be both floating(“standing”) and swimming. However, if I am in USA court being grilled by a lawyer, saying “I was neither floating(“standing”) nor swimming” would be a lie since I would be doing both in alternation. In any case your explanation of dealing with riptides makes more sense than my own prior instruction to always swim, but first parallel to shore.

Thank you.

p.s., I’d also thought about a raft being neither standing or swimming, but I have also been in a canoe being swept out to sea by the tide (terrifying) and I’m not sure if the Buddha had a raft even though we do thanks to the Buddha. Our canoe had to be rowed neither halting nor straining but persistently around the tide, not contesting it. We emerged safely on shore in the dark night exhausted.


Yes, nice.

You skillfully made use of your own abilities (powers, enlightment factors) to deal with the tides (of samsara) and, although still somewhat unstable, you kept the canoe stable in the water, became more and more skilled, and reached safety, the other shore.

With skill you reached the other shore. There was Green waiting for you. Ofcourse he started debating your Path, like he always does. He criticizes your Path, your skills, your understanding of the tides. Your idea that you were on the other shore.

You smiled. You embraced Green and he unfreezed, and a tear dropped in the sand.


Perhaps it’s best not to try to reason it out too literally. Perhaps the idea of the verse is to be confusing - to spur the listener into questioning their ideas about how to cross the flood…

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Ven. Bodhi’s translation does indeed lend itself to that non-literal approach. It also lends itself to a literal approach.

However, the metaphor “neither standing nor swimming” befuddles me because of its intentional specificity. Ven. Bodhi’s translation is broader and accords with Bhante’s principle of least meaning. I can only conclude that Bhante wished to draw our attention here. He knows that the Sangha will read both translations and discuss them both just as we are doing. This thread has evolved into a wonderfully fruitful exploration of valid and useful interpretations. So perhaps that might have been his intent. We have no notes to go on here and Bhante has remained somewhat silent.

I am content to be befuddled and let the puzzle rest unsolved. It’s only a neutral feeling there. But I did have to ask. As Ayya Sabbamitta pointed out, “Well he’s still alive.” :laughing:


If you are partial to the image of a riptide, then ‘neither treading water nor swimming’ might be more fitting.

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