Several times per week I notice someone has done a search for the meaning of the quote mentioned in the title of this post. This searching has been going on for months so I will attempt some assistance.
In popular culture the quote “Water Which is Too Pure Has No Fish” comes from the movie Bulletproof Monk with Chow Yun-Fat. But it originates from the Ts’ai Ken T’an (Vegetable Roots Discourses) compiled by Hong Zicheng during the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) in China. There are elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Chan (later to be called Zen in Japan) Buddhism to these writings.
The section that contains this quote is:
Soil that is dirty grows the countless things. Water that is clear has no fish. Thus as a mature person you properly include and retain a measure of grime. You can’t just go along enjoying your own private purity and restraint. (Robert Aitken trans.)
As to it’s meaning I’ll attempt my interpretation of it. I’m taking this from both a Buddhist standpoint and from a poetic standpoint. I don’t claim to be a great authority in either but here’s my explanation.
Reality is things as they are. If one is on the path to realize things as they are, to realize the truth of reality one cannot exclude the parts that are unsettling or unpleasant or inpure. Impurity is a label imposed on reality by a moral judgment from a clouded mind. There are some things that hinder the mind from seeing reality and to clear those away is an objective of the Buddhist path. But to carry on further and attempt to reach a state of “purity” in which everything in Reality is sanitized until it is sterile and lifeless defeats the entire purpose of the path.
The fish requires food and oxygen in the water in order to live. There is no state of being for any living thing which is so pure. It is impossible to live in that kind of sterility. To attempt that is to isolate one’s self to such an extent that no contact with anything in the rest of reality is possible. Everything could be seen in this sense of defilement then. An impossible situation for any living being.
The only and ultimate state of purity in which no defilements or errors can occur is death.
Here are a few more sections translated from the Ts’ai Ken T’an.
And you can check out the Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom from Ming China on Life and Living at Amazon.