The monks and nuns in Plum Village, France recently offered a special evening of music meditation to celebrate the end of the Summer season of online retreats. The music was interspersed with a reading of “The Story of a River”, a text from Thich Nhat Hanh.
The Story of a River by Thich Nhat Hanh
Born on the top of a mountain, the little spring dances her way down.
The stream of water sings as she travels. She wants to go fast. She is unable to go slowly. Running, rushing, is the only way, maybe even flying. She wants to arrive. Arrive where? Arrive at the ocean. She has heard of the deep, blue, beautiful ocean. To become one with the ocean, that is what she wants.
Coming down to the plains, she grows into a young river. Winding her way through the beautiful meadows, she has to slow down. ” Why can’t I run the way I could when I was a creek? I want to reach the deep, blue ocean. If I continue this slowly, how will I ever arrive there at all?”
As a creek, she was not happy with what she was, she really wanted to grow into a river. But, as a river, she does not feel happy either. She cannot bear to slow down.
Then, as she slows down, the young river begins to notice the beautiful clouds reflected in her water. They are of different colors and shapes floating in the sky, and they seem to be free to go anywhere they please. Wanting to be like a cloud, she begins to chase after the clouds, one after another.
“I am not happy as a river. I want to be like you, or I shall suffer. Life is really not worth living”. So the river begins to play the game. She chases after clouds. She learns to laugh and cry. But the clouds do not stay in one place for very long. “They reflect themselves in my water, but then they leave. No cloud seems to be faithful. Every cloud I know has left me. No cloud has ever brought me satisfaction or happiness. I hate their betrayal.”
The excitement of chasing after the clouds is not worth the suffering and despair.
One afternoon, a strong wind carried all the clouds away. The sky became desperately empty. There were no more clouds to chase after. Life became empty for the river. She was so lonely she didn’t want to live anymore. But how could a river die? From something you become nothing? From someone, you become no one? Is it possible?
During the night, the river went back to herself. She could not sleep. She listened to her own cries, the lapping of her water against the shore. This was the first time she had ever listened to herself deeply, and in doing so, she discovered something very important: her water was made of clouds. She had been chasing after clouds and she did not know that the clouds were her own nature.
The river realized that the object of her search was within her. She touched peace. Suddenly, she could stop. She no longer felt the need to run after something outside herself. She was already what she wanted to become. The peace she experienced was truly gratifying and brought her a deep rest, a deep sleep.
When the river woke up the next morning, she discovered something new and wonderful reflected in her water – the blue sky. “How deep it is, how calm. The sky is immense, stable, welcoming and utterly free”. It seemed impossible to believe that this was the first time the river ever reflected the sky in her water. But that is true, because in the past, she was interested only in the clouds, and she never paid attention to the sky. No cloud could ever leave the sky. She knew that the clouds were there, hidden somewhere in the blue sky. The sky must contain within itself all the clouds and waters. Clouds seem impermanent, but the sky is always there as the faithful home of all the clouds.
Touching the sky, the river touched stability. She touched the ultimate. In the past, she had only touched the coming, going, being, and nonbeing of the clouds. Now she was able to touch the home of all coming, going, being, and nonbeing. No one could take the sky out of her water anymore.
How wonderful it was to stop and touch! The stopping and touching brought her true stability and peace. She had arrived home.
That afternoon, the wind ceased to blow. The clouds came back one by one. The river had become wise. She was able to welcome each cloud with a smile. The clouds of many colors and shapes seemed to be the same, but then again they were no longer the same for the river. She did not feel the need to possess or chase after any particular cloud. She smiled to each cloud with equanimity and loving kindness. She enjoyed their reflections in her water. But when they drifted away, the river did not feel deserted.
She waved to them, saying “Goodbye. Have a nice journey.” She was no longer bound to any of the clouds.
The day was a happy one. That night, when the river calmly opened up her heart to the sky, she received the most wonderful image ever reflected in her water – a beautiful full moon, a moon so bright, so refreshing, smiling.
The full moon of the Buddha travels in the sky of utmost emptiness. If the rivers of living beings are calm the refreshing moon will reflect beautifully in their water.
All space seemed to be there for the enjoyment of the moon, and she looked utterly free. The river reflected the moon in her water and enjoyed the same freedom and happiness.
What a wonderful festive night for everyone – sky, clouds, moon, stars, and water. In the boundless peace, sky clouds, moon stars, and water enjoyed walking in meditation together. They walked with no need to arrive anywhere, not even the ocean. They could just be happy in the present moment. The river did not need to arrive at the ocean to become water. She knew she was water by nature and at the same time a cloud, the moon, the sky, the stars, and the snow. Why should she run away from herself?
Who speaks of a river as not flowing? A river does flow, yes. But she does not need to rush.
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