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A zen teacher sitting by a stream is one day approached by a student who said "teacher, I want to know truth". The teacher then said "good, come closer". The student moves closer and sits down next to the teacher, and says again "teacher, I want to know truth", the teachers replies "listen to the stream, what do you hear?" - the student replies, "teacher, I hear the stream, I want to know truth".

The teacher then says "place your ears next to the water", the student does so and immediately the teacher plunges the students head in the water. After holding him there for a few moments the teacher says "when you were underwater, what did you want?" The student said "I wanted air", and the teacher replies "return to me when you want to know truth as much as you wanted air".

I am fairly sure I heard this from modern egyptologist John Anthony West - I probably didn't get it completely right, but I feel the many points found within remain. Although I have my own thoughts on the saying, as to its meaning, I am very interested to hear others perspective on it.

So I pose the question, what was the teacher saying here in your opinion? The answer may seem obvious and apparent, however...

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Comment by Taron on October 29, 2014 at 5:42am

More than anything, it makes for an elegant joke, that's for sure! xD

As with any joke, its impact comes from our understanding and is probably proportional to the depth of our understanding. We may not even know to formulate properly just how deeply we understood, but when a nerve is struck, we get to laugh quite hard! ...and that is good! :o)

Asking for its meaning is almost like a proper continuation into an infinite joke, HAHAHA! Sorry.

I deeply sympathize with that teacher, though, because questions of that nature have to be explored not posed to another. I've come to understand that every theory arrived at only gains meaning once you can experience it, become entirely aware of it, almost turning it into an extension of your senses. Imagine you never tasted anything sweet! Then somebody explains to you what sugar is. When you'd see it, you might recognize it as sugar, but you still couldn't associate anything else with it other than it's kind of crystal like and so on. But once you've tasted it and you knew what it would do to the water you put it into, you become aware of it in a much stronger way. Ok, once you went even deeper into it and you'd learn about chemical properties of it and what your body does with it, you still would need years to add yet another sense to your understanding of what sugar is. Still you may not understand why you like it, how you know when it is too much or not enough to satisfy you and why would you seek satisfaction from it to begin with and on and on it goes...

So, unless you can really experience something, you'll never full know it. And the teacher says:"Return to me, when you want to know truth as much..."

That's a good indication that even when you have experienced it, you still won't have the answer.

Comment by Readlorey on October 28, 2014 at 2:51pm

To me it seems that the teacher is telling the student that to know truth you have to have a strong desire to find the air (truth).

Comment by Michel L. R. Pisano on October 28, 2014 at 8:04am

So many wonderful comments to this wonderful story.

To me, it says:  Be careful what you ask, you may get more than you bargained for.

The truth will set you free, but you may not be ready for it.


Comment by Non Entity on October 27, 2014 at 10:51pm
What a great teacher! such a lesson would send me on a very long trail of thoughts and interpretations of the lesson. Its been very enjoyable reading all your takes as well, thank you.

I recalled that old axiom as I was reading about the teacher leading his student to the water: "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink". For me the path to truth and knowledge is the same. Anyone can lead you there, but the free will of the human soul is the only force that will guide you to drinking it. In this same fashion, it was easy for the student to take the path to his teacher and pose the question. But getting to drink from the fountain of truth required more questions, more will, for the water does not simply hop into ones mouthh.

Nevertheless, if guidance be needed, a good teacher would guide you further, in this case kicking you into a chaotic flowing stream of water. Upon doing so, you've now begun to ask new questions, and have new insight into the wide array of variables contained within this path, and may have forgotten that you even wanted to drink it.

Suddenly you find yourself seeking a new truth, a truth far more powerful, and far more needed, as if your life depended on it. And yet that truth now so prevalent, seems all too familiar, as if its been there all along. And you know just how to find it.

Yet more questions remain back on shore. New truths to discover, with a slightly different perspective on how to find them. If only your need to find them was as powerful as the need for air. Maybe then instead of asking the teacher for the truth in the next encounter, the student will simply ask for a glass of water...

Comment by ☤Tris☤ on May 1, 2011 at 4:50pm
Exactly Sunmover, and sometimes ONLY after the material doesn't fulfill unfortunately. And this is a type of desire I don't think Buddha had an issue with, but rather human desires.

Comment by ☤Tris☤ on May 1, 2011 at 3:59pm

Indeed Denver, Sunmover, very true - but I would have to say there is a distinction in seeking with the Spirit, Heart or Soul, as opposed to the mind alone. If this would have been the case in the story, the student would have seen that the teacher was already showing him/her that - in the breeze, in the sound of the stream, in the silence of the moment's awareness. It's the journey, not the destination ;)


Seeking with the un-armored Heart through-out daily life I can't remember ever failing me, it's staying in that state all the time or being stuck in mind that sometimes does.

Comment by Denver on May 1, 2011 at 1:44am
I've herd many masters say "truth" was a waste of their life- it was unessential. So the student was seeking what the master gained forfeiting his life to do so. He had yet to sacrifice. It has been my impression learning, that seeking is fruitless in it of itself. That even interesting phenomenon is fruitless and gets one no closer to the truth. meaning truth is life in all forms- living is the truth and it's yours and yours alone. one master can teach his students their truth but it will be negligible in trade. I have herd many masters say that what will interest you in the "higher knowledge" will fall away if you can move past it, forfeiting most goals for truth (novelty). Meaning truth is as simple and complex as what you will find in any of the great teachings- and yet they will not sooth a seeker, and answer no question, or vet any pain. The root of these lie not in truth but in denying it. questions stem from questioning, pain from feeling, etc. it is what it is- make of it what you will that is it's truth and yours. seek answers and you will sacrifice living (breathing) to find them. answers wont sooth seeking.
Comment by Michael John on November 18, 2010 at 7:58am
Water is emotion, air is thought. Fire is energy and earth is the root. Ether, or spirit, prevades all. Here we can link fire and water as one pair of opposites, air and earth and the second pair and ether as the "Mercury".

Let him who has the eyes to see - see.
Comment by Michael John on November 18, 2010 at 7:51am
Truth is not something that can be streamed into your mind. Things can be streamed into your thoughts- yes - but the final decision to validate them internally - without the use of the mind - is a personal issue that rests with each of us individually. If you use only your mind to decipher truth, you will be lead astray. Concurrently, if you use only your heart, you will be lead equally astray in the opposite direction. This is why both are needed. It is like how we need both eyes - in focus - to decipher an accurate image.

Do not deprive yourselves of either mind or heart. They are as water and air. There is room to guess and approximate for those who do not have proper sight - vision - however, there is but ONE truth. I cannot tell you what it is, you have to focus your heart and mind as you do with your eyes. Therein the image will clearly appear before you in bot your heart AND mind equally.
Comment by michael alaska on November 2, 2010 at 3:35pm

i being a witness and victim though 76-77 in the bay area , my friend who was a professor at the University of San Francisco , told me about this and what to expect. i was 19 for years i new about the program but who could i tell or explain my experience to.

and for those of you who think this is not possible , you might want to remove your head from the sand.
it is because of this information being on a PC am i willing to admit my knowledge.

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