Selling water by the river

November 28th, 2011 by | 17 Comments

“Selling water by the river” is a famous Zen phrase, said to have been spoken by a Zen Master to describe his forty years of teaching. Why would you buy water from someone standing beside the river, when you could just as easily put a cup down and scoop some up for yourself? Furthermore, Zen maintains that there is absolutely nothing to attain and nothing to get. Why would you pay for it? Who, when they hear there is absolutely nothing to be attained, would want to go there?

Zen is full circle. We begin Zen seeking something that we feel is missing or lacking in our life. We move through various stages of development until once again we return home to where we started, having realized that there never was anything lacking. We were complete and whole from the beginning and only under the illusion that something was missing. Knowing this in an intellectual and conceptual way has nothing to do with truly realizing it in a full bodily way and experiencing it directly. The difference is we now have gift-bestowing hands and the ability to awaken and liberate all beings. Having gone through this full circle we can point the way to others.

Often this is where another Zen saying, “Don’t confuse the finger for the moon,” applies. Students can very easily confuse the finger of the one pointing the way for the way itself. I myself did this for nearly fourteen years, thinking that I was relinquishing to my Zen Master rather than to my True Self or the true master within. This confusion brings up a lot of problems for both the student and the teacher.

Unbeknownst to the student all kinds of projections, hopes, and expectations arise, particularly that the master is somehow complete, perfect and whole in the relative rather than the absolute sense or realm. Disappointment and doubt eventually follow, which is both natural and essential. How can we ever accept our self as we are while hoping and expecting to become perfect as we are? To realize this is to realize that there is always one that is incomplete and imperfect along with the one that has never been anything less than perfect, compete and whole from the very beginning. This is called, “Selling water by the river.”

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17 Responses to Selling water by the river

  1. Lore says:

    This is beautiful, Roshi. Thank you! I’ll echo the thought by saying I came to it hoping that I’d find out what was deeply wrong with me. What I discovered is that the only thing wrong with me was the idea that there was something wrong with me. Huge revelation! And greatly freeing on so many levels.

  2. Mark Mcintyre says:

    Such Generosity of Wisdom

  3. Barbara Rice says:

    Ahahahahahaha. I love you! Blessings to and through you! :O)

  4. Chris Stark says:

    This is a quote from TS Eliot in “The Four Quartets”

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time

  5. KB says:

    A can of snakes, but peace flew out… :)

  6. Chad says:

    Why would a true master sell it? Or allow any projections to manifest. There are such Teachers (Roshi Included) and they point to the true master, not to traditions. The coming home is a completely different view (no viewer ) My Teacher would say most people want their cake and eat it too, well then non dual awareness is not for them. Get the zen sword and chop off some heads, no need for a followers. I hope whoever reads this is smiling, cause I have a huge grin.
    If you ever have a retreat for common folk (little in the finance dept big in the heart)
    email me :-)
    Much love to all who are caught in the fairy circle rubbing crystals on there forehead
    chanting come save me.

  7. Stephanie says:


  8. RICHIE says:

    So, the imperfect would be the dual or the right side of the tringle and the perfect would be the non-dual or the left side of the triangle. Is that right? Lovexxxxxxxxxxxx

  9. What about buying water by the river?

  10. Lionel says:

    It’s not a circle…It’s a spiral. It only looks like a circle from a limited perspective of a 2 dimensional plane. It’s also a fractal spiral in 3 dimensions, which means it never really ends in the height dimension. It’s also only looks like a spiral from our limited 3 dimensional perspective. So we revisit variations of these same struggles over and over again, yet each successive test of our consciousness with these same behavioral archetypes is in fact occurring at ever higher octaves of consciousness until the experiences eventually culminate in a paradigm shift beyond these polar opposites of the human experience leading to more paradigm shifts, etc.
    And that’s all I have to say about that.

  11. laura says:

    To Chad…Where do you keep your ‘big heart’?

  12. Jake says:

    This puts me in mind of my recent blog post.– ” Trying harder to commune with God is spirituality. But when you realize that intrinsically you are always in divine communion then there is no longer a need for spirituality. Like an ocean trying hard to be water, It has only to realize that by nature it was always a manifestation of water. Therefore the effort is moot. Allen watts put it perfectly when he said “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” Or T.S. Eliot when he said , “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

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