Drop of Water

A Zen master asked a student to bring a pail of water to cool his path. The student brought the water and, after cooling the path, he emptied the remaining drops on to the ground. “Why didn’t you give it to the plants? You shouldn’t waste even a drop of water.” The master said. The student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

Sometimes a Zen koan makes you feel slightly foolish, doesn’t it? Upon reading it, you think to yourself – Really? That’s all it got to say? But I have to admit, that’s what I like most about a Zen koan. It says the least, in the most ordinary way.

It gives you a sense that you’re doing all right, as far as you follow your intuition. That as long as you’re being you, in the most uncontrived, unfabricated, unelaborated way, you’re not far from Buddhahood. It’s comforting to be reassured, after all.

Before I encountered the Zen parable, I’d been saving every drop of leftover water or recycled water, to water my houseplants. None of my cold tea, rice-washing water, or ice cubes in the fridge from last season ever got wasted. It’s not a practice based on principle, but more of a no-brainer act, fashioned out of inherent instinct. Naturally, the plants are flourishing in every corner of my home.

The flamingos in the hallway, they bloom all year round, with glossy pastel-red bracts and delicate rosy-pink spadices extending from swaying stems, looking exactly like a cluster of flamingos perching among an abundance of heart-shaped foliage.

The peace lily in the den, its silky white blossoms repose on some dark-green stalks, a herd of cranes meditating in serenity.

And the jade plants in my study, their juicy green reminds me of the emerald bracelet my grandmother wore on her wrist. She’s a simple, uncomplicated, pristine woman, my grandma. She’s a Buddha-like presence in my childhood. Although she never seemed have studied Zen in her life.

As much as I am diligent in saving water for my plants, I’ve never felt ‘enlightened’ in any particular way, unlike the disciple in the story. My plants and I simply keep on breathing, doing whatever we have to do in the moment, following our inner rhythm of seasons.

This morning, as I watered the violets on my windowsill, I got a glimpse of the neighbor’s dog, living out his everyday routines and rituals. In the morning he usually takes a stroll in his backyard – at leisure pace, he sniffs at some unknown scent in the air; he jogs around a bit, following his imaginary butterflies; sporadically he may come to a pause, holding his breath for something astir in the grass … In the afternoon, he sprawls out on the patio. Basking in the sun or cloud shade, he squints his eyes, surveying the semicircle of his finite domain … It’s just another day in a dog’s life.

Does a dog have Buddha-nature? The classic question comes to mind. As soon as it appears, it occurs to me how irrelevant the question is. I can just tell, for the neighbor’s dog, being a dog is what it is – perfectly adequate, with or without Buddha-nature. Any question imposed by human minds, would be plain redundant.