As a boy I lived close to a raging river. If I kept my bedroom window open at night I could hear the waters tumbling over and over as they roared and rumbled into infinity, for not a half mile from my home an enormous waterfall thundered over a high cliff forming a deep swirling pool of dark water on the rocks below. This river was said to be the king of a hundred streams.
Each spring when the river swelled from the melting snow high in the mountains people who tried to wade or to swim in the treacherous river lost their lives by coming too close to those falls, and being swept over, drowning in the swirling undercurrents in the waters below. If they were lucky they wouldn’t drown; rather they would die brutal deaths by bashing their brains out on the jagged rocks lurking unseen below the surface of the water below the falls. Many times their corpses were never recovered.
But I took great delight in allowing myself to be swept over that waterfall. I would go into a whirl above and come out in a twirl below. The rocks were my companions. I knew them all and they all knew me. The waters called my name and whispered its secrets to me. I could feel the twisting undercurrents and follow their lead so as to make my escape from their grip whereas others only rolled back into the twirl, trapped until they perished. The jagged rocks were soft as feather pillows to my head.
Fearful others would see me hurtling over the falls and think me mad I made it a habit to rise from bed when the sky was just turning pink to go to the river. Early one spring morning while swimming to the shore below the raging waterfall I saw a man with a shaved head and wearing an orange robe standing there by the riverside. When I had pulled myself from the water he approached me speaking words in a strange accent. I thought he came to question me as to why I allowed myself to be swept over the falls but he surprised me by speaking of things I did not know.
He told me how he was but a small stone on a great hill; he said his path was plain and quiet; he was neither overjoyed to be alive nor did he count it a calamity to die. The man told me that what we reckon we know is not so much as what we do not know, that the time since we were born is nothing compared to the time before we were born. He said what can be spoken of in words is the form of things; what can be thought of as ideas is the subtilty of things.
He asked if I had learned the secrets of the water. I nodded. Tell me, he said. But when I opened my mouth to explain the secrets I had learned I discovered I knew nothing. He smiled and said we put into motion the nature set for us by heaven without ever knowing why or how we do it. He asked me if I thought it would be better to die going over the falls or to live while dragging myself through the mud. I said it would be better to die. He laughed again saying that he preferred dragging himself through the mud.
As he walked away he seemed to evaporate into the early morning mist. I wondered who he was, for I had never seen this man before. When I woke still in my bed I realized I'd been but dreaming but I couldn't seem to shake off the man's words. I thought about him for many years after.
In time my courage increased until I used to show off each spring when the river turned into a raging maniac; I believed how others witnessing my feats must have thought I was full of courage and daring. Sometimes a pretty girl would approach me as I emerged from the river dripping wet and touch me on the arm as if making sure what they had seen was real and not an illusion.
Each day more people gathered to watch my performances. I felt small and ashamed at first though as time passed my confidence grew as the people cheered when I succeeded in taming that waterfall. My pride grew until it knew no bounds. Nothing and no one could do what I did—not tadpoles nor frogs, not fish nor humans, not dogs nor lizards—and survive the plunge, and what's more, everyone knew it.
But perhaps it might have hit closer to the truth to say that the people watching me go over that waterfall must have thought I was a bit daft to attempt such reckless acts in the first place; more likely they knew with a certainty that I was as dim-witted as the water itself. They were all just waiting for the day I didn’t come out of the water so they could nod their 'I told you so's' to one another.
One day when I emerged from the twirl below the falls a crowd of people who had watched me go over in a whirl gathered around me. I anticipated their congratulations but instead all of them began haranguing for me to stop. They said their children were talking of emulating me. They were worried for them. But I wouldn’t listen. When I didn’t stop they talked to my parents. They called the police. They alerted prominent government officials. All these authorities berated me over my antics; they ganged up to forbid me to go back into the water above the waterfall.
Finally I promised them all I wouldn't return to wading in the river above the falls. I would no longer allow myself to be swept over. But the pull of the current proved too strong for me to resist. It was all I dreamed of at night. By day I drew pictures of the waterfall filling countless notebooks with my scrawls. Though I knew everyone was right—that going into that river might well one day cost me my life—I couldn’t stay away.
So I waited until the dark of night. I climbed out my bedroom window and going to the river above the falls I would allow myself to be taken away in the swirl. They didn’t understand. I had to be part of that raging river. I had to be swept over the falls; nothing else in life mattered to me but living like I was meant to live... or perhaps like I was meant to die should one precious night I might not emerge in the twirl below.
No one understood.
I moved away from that river years ago yet it is still part of me. That river taught me many lessons I could not have learned anywhere else. Though I haven’t seen that waterfall in many decades it is still my mentor and it remains my strength.
I have become the man of my long-ago dream. I am a small stone on a high hill. I am like water. I live in the world and yet I do not strive to be part of it. Like water I inhabit low places that others reject. I live close to the earth so that my toes might feel the soil under them and I might suffer the sun warming my back. By stilling my thoughts I go deep into my heart leaving desire by the creek side.
I take no initiative to produce either happiness or calamity. I respond to the influences acting upon me and move as I feel the pressure. I act only when obliged to do so. I have discarded wisdom and the memories of the past. By being placid and indifferent I follow the virtue of water.
I deal with others by donning a gentle smile and issuing forth with a pleasant hello. I am a blessing to everyone I meet. My speech is sparse and yet to the point. I treat everyone with equanimity. I do what I say I will do yet I do not act until I know the time is ripe. Like the four seasons I understand by acting at the right time not a single thing is injured.
To sow seeds in autumn is to starve in the spring; to laugh during a dirge is to bring shame on the family. Since I have no quarrel with anyone there is no one to blame.