“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.”