Zen on Water

What is Zen? If you asked me some three decades ago, I would be very confident in my answer – as a Zen neophyte you know it all. Now I’d hide behind the definition ‘Zen is dialectic pragmatism with religious basis’ or would give a non-committal answer ‘art of living and dying’. It’s worth mentioning that there is no division into body and soul; everything centres on ‘bodymind’. It is my deep conviction that Zen is to be experienced – through meditation and work –  and only talked about when absolutely necessary. But today is such a day, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to talk about the role that water plays in Zen training and living.

The roots of Zen are in nature, so it follows that we relate to it in various ways. In everyday life deep respect for natural resources shows through right actions. A story of monks drinking water from a river illustrates this: drinking only half a cup and returning the rest to the river.

There are five levels of Zen practice as defined by an 8th century Chinese Zen master. The first one is called ‘bompu’, secular practice for mental and physical well-being. That’s what nowadays mindfulness approach is closest to. Next levels describe various stages of the Path towards the spiritual aim of Zen –  enlightenment experience, or kensho in Japanese. But that’s not a goal in itself as way of living that follows after kensho certifies the quality of this experience. And Zen is a lifelong practice; I can liken it to climbing infinitely long Jacob’s ladder.

There is tradition in Zen not to talk about spiritual experiences directly but in oblique, poetic terms, relating to natural world. Water plays major role in reflecting and describing mind states. Mind of an experienced meditator is compared to an ocean – nothing disturbs the stillness and quiet at its bottom but there are still waves on the surface; ranging from storms to light breezes. Water may reflect the moon of enlightenment. It may feature in ‘after-kensho’ poems, as for example in a poem that a female Zen Master Mugai Nyodai (childhood name Chiyono) wrote upon enlightenment when a water pail broke [Zen flesh, Zen bones compiled by Paul Reps; Harmondsworth, Penguin; 6th Edition edition (1978)]:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

In my tradition there is a poem which is chanted  daily in Rinzai Zen temples: The song of Zen by Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1768)  – Hakuin Zenji zazen wasan. Here is the first stance:

All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice by nature is water.

Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.

Translated by Norman Waddell

At a risk of over-simplification, it suffices to say that Buddha here stands for Absolute. It expresses the connection between individual and One.

Water is essence of life, and the way it changes its form, adapts to its surroundings and in turn adapts them is an exemplar for an aspiring Zennist. I would like to quote a poem by a 20-th century Zen Master Mumon Yamada (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mumon_Yamada) entitled ‘Like water’ (http://shofukuji.net/8e-water.htm)

Like water
Not stagnating
Hope to go

Even if we meet good things
Even if we meet bad things
Never look back
Keep advancing
Hope to go flowingly

Even if we see the beautiful flowers on either bank of the river
Even if we hear the birds chirping cheerfully
Praising their beauty
Taking joy in their cheer
Continue on moving forward

They say that flowing water never freezes
They say that running water never stagnates
I believe it is alive

Nourishes farms
Raises plants
Rears fish
Never want a higher place
Towards a lower and lower place
Like water
I hope to flow


I would like you to do zazen (sitting meditation) now. Please pay attention to your posture. When sitting on a chair, be grounded: feet hips-width apart, firmly planted on the ground. In your lower body, feet and the buttocks form a tripod, a very stable support for the spine. Spine is straight, as much as its natural curve allows. Gently rock your body side-to-side, back to front until it settles in a comfortable position. If your back is weak, use the back of the chair for support. Take a few deep breaths, and allow your breath to be what it wants to be today. Then gently close your eyes or have them half-open, unfocused.

Listen to the sounds of the city, sounds in the garden, then bring your attention to the sounds in the room. Now listen to your heart, the external sounds quietening. Now imagine that you’re standing on a bank of a big river, which flows from some place far, far away. Step in gently, dipping in your toes first, then immersing yourself fully. Allow water to caress your body, to permeate it gently until you become the river, flowing and flowing. Perhaps the river flows through narrow canyons, rapidly and loudly, or it flows gently through fragrant meadows. Like a drop of water, you are IT, not distinguishable, yet the part of the river.

Now you come to a ledge. In a big waterfall, there are billions of water droplets falling down. You are one of them, individual, enjoying the air, the sunshine and the freedom of fall. Then you meet other droplets again at the bottom of the falls, and the river flows again until it joins the ocean. From there life of a droplet will begin again: evaporating, being a tiny part of a cloud, falling as rain on the mountains where the river is born and flows on the plains.

Experience this process in its totality or parts of it at your own space. Feel the water flow, feel Life. If thoughts and distractions come, let them come and go, like the clouds – do not attach to them but go back to the river flow.

Now we have come to the end of our meditation. Listen to the sounds in your body, to the sounds in the room, silence of the garden, and to the sounds of city life. Feel your toes, fingers, hands; open your eyes gently and rock your body side-to-side until you can firmly come back to this room. Then have a really good stretch and you’re ready for the next activity.

Talk given at Quaker Summer Retreat Day, 2nd June 2018, at Oxford Meeting House