The prophet Elijah fled for his life into the wilderness and journeyed to the same mountain where Moses had encountered God many generations earlier. However, Elijah’s mountaintop experience was entirely different. He encountered wind and earthquake and fire, just as Moses did. But if Elijah expected the Lord to thunder from the mountaintop like the great and terrible Oz, he was surely disappointed. This time God was a mere whisper of his former self. Instead of a spectacular fireworks display, there was only a still, small voice.
If God himself proves so changeable, how can we expect truth to be otherwise? We seek in vain for some permanence in the ceaseless ebb and flow of life. By insisting that truth be immutable, Western religious traditions must then defend it against every assault of time and circumstance. Eastern traditions are generally more comfortable with the essential impermanence of all phenomena and understand truth in terms of flow.
The Chinese ideogram for Buddhist “dharma,” or ultimate truth, consists of two symbols meaning “water” and “go.” The nature of water is to flow; indeed, it must flow freely or become stagnant in time. The ancient form for “go” depicts an empty vessel. We often mistake the vessel for the truth it contains. Water is fluid and transparent, taking its shape and coloration from its container. It holds its form only when frozen.
There is a Zen story about a nun who meditated for a long time without apparent success. Then one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old bucket, and the bottom gave way. At that moment she found enlightenment. She wrote a poem in commemoration that included these lines:
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
The nun discovered that her mind could no more contain the truth than her pail could contain the moon.
“No Water, No Moon,” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, edited by Paul Reps