Learning from Water
Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai
Smoothly Flowing On
The famous Japanese poet and priest Saigyo (1118–90) wrote this: “Beside the flowing water, / We forget the heat, / This circle of friends. / The cicadas in the treetops / Join our chorus.” Indeed, in this season how pleasant would be a cool breeze blowing across a highland plain or at the waterside.
Let me quote another poem, this one by Kotaro Takamura (1883–1956): “I come to the mountains, / And why do I come here? / I come to the mountains, / To climb and climb, each step steady and firm / And to drink the water.” When hiking in the mountains, the coolness of a sip of water, pure and clean, flowing down a gorge or welling up from a spring—there is nothing that makes us feel so good. When we drink such water, we feel revitalized.
It goes without saying that water has a profound connection to the beginnings of life. Judging from the single fact that the human body is about seventy percent water, our survival is inseparable from water. We human beings whose lives are supported by all existence have a special debt of gratitude, immeasurable beyond what we could ever know, to the air and water.
Water teaches us many things. As I often point out, the kanji character for Dharma is composed of the elements “water” and “departing / going away.” This means that just as water always naturally flows from a high place to a low place as a matter of course, the Dharma likewise reflects a universal principle. The Japanese word for buddha, hotoke, is said to be derived from the word hodokeru meaning “becoming disentangled.” From that history, we call those who are released from attachments and preconceived ideas hotoke in Japanese.
Applying the fact that I described above in our daily lives means becoming ready to accept whatever occurs. While that may be a rather simplistic thing to say, doing this means that without thinking about whether you are not good at doing something or do not like to do it, you simply agree and accept it. This is what it means to live according to the Buddha’s teaching, that is, the Dharma, and only when we are practicing in this manner are we living the Dharma.
I recently published a book in Japanese titled Kokoro no manako o hiraku (Opening the mind’s eye). I put the inscription “Flowing like Water” on the first page because my goal is to lead a life like flowing water.
Everything Is a Lesson from the Buddha
As I noted above, water can teach us many things. Many proverbs and idiomatic phrases draw parallels between the special properties of water and human life, which indicates that water has many lessons for human beings.
For example, water’s characteristic freedom and flexibility—its ability to fill a vessel of any shape—can teach something valuable to a person who does not fit in well with others. The water in a river that flows by has something to say to someone who is stuck in the past. And the phrase “dripping water gradually hollows out stone” can give confidence and courage to someone who is worried about not receiving recognition from others.
Learning from water is not a fixed idea. Depending on how one contemplates and puts the lesson into practice, some individual way of bringing it into one’s life will be found.
Kukai (774–835), founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism and known posthumously as Kobo Daishi, wrote, “Water has no distinct form of its own. It encounters the wind, and it forms waves.” In other words, just as water has no fixed physical shape, our encounters lead to change depending on how we react to them. We human beings, who through our various encounters experience many emotional waves, should accept Kukai’s words as an admonition that, at such times, it is important to see occurrences as they really are and accept them without becoming agitated or upset.
That said, if we were free of attachments, we could learn not only from water, but from everything around us, as is stated emphatically in this poem by Zen master Dogen (1200–1253): “The colors on the peak, / The echoes in the valley— / All of them have / The form and voice / Of my teacher, Shakyamuni.”
Seen from the cosmos, Earth is a beautiful planet blessed with abundant blue water. That is what satellite photographs show us. That beautiful water, the water without which life cannot exist, has many things to teach us human beings.
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing
Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.