Selling Water By The River

A Zen Master said, "For forty years I sold water by the river."

It is a famous Zen phrase, but what did he mean? Why would people buy water from someone standing next to the river, from which they could get all the free water they wanted?

The Zen master is talking about what an enlightened teacher does. In addition to providing instruction in the methods of Buddhism - how to practice meditation and mindfulness - an enlightened teacher provides empowerments. An enlightened teacher radiates the dharma kaya, the clear light. Everything they come into contact with is infused with the clear light. In Zen it is called "the special transmission outside the sutras." The Zen master is pointing out that the transmission effects everything that a Zen master comes in contact with. Not just students and people, but dogs, food, marbles, places, trees, and water. Everything.

And everything is changed by that. The water that the Zen master sells by the river is not the same as the water that comes from the river. Most people wouldn't do well in a business that sells water if it was located next to the river. The Zen master does just fine - he sells successfully for forty years.

All over the planet millions of people make pilgrimages to spiritual places. Quite often these places are where great spiritual teachers lived and taught. Part of the reason that people travel long distances, sometimes under difficult conditions, is that the teacher empowered that land itself. As they lived and meditated and taught in that location the clear light absorbed into the land. As they went through the enlightenment experiences, the samadhis and satoris, the entire area was inundated with the clear light. Even hundreds and thousands of years later it is still there.

The transmission is handed from teacher to student - not the rituals, not the outer forms, but the essence, that which is "beyond the power of words to define." As the Mahasiddha Kukkuripa sang:

Where conscious effort and striving are present
The Buddha is absent,
Thus, ritual and offerings are futile.
Within the peak experience of the guru's grace
The Buddha is present,
But will the fortunate recipient see it?

from Buddhist Masters of Enchantment by Keith Dowman, Inner Traditions, (c) 1998

For forty years the Zen master provided the peak experience of the guru's grace -- he sold water by the river.