Water Which is Too Pure Has No Fish

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.

Notes:

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.

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By NellaLou Tagged

12 comments on “Water Which is Too Pure Has No Fish

  1. Good one Nella Lou. Also in an aquarium if you don’t have a certain amount of “muck” (beneficial bacteria) and just have “pure water” the fish will die.

    • Truly without the muck we’d have nothing to slog through. And there’s only so many fried fish a person can eat at any given time.

  2. I take this saying (“water which is too pure has no fish”) to have an internal meaning. Our practice directs us toward full realization of who we actually are (“Who am I?”). When we look into ourselves, we find not only our great beauty but also the many defects our our nature. It can’t be any other way – that’s how we’re made. The work of practice is not to expunge our defects and become pure, but to realize our defects (and our purity) and so realize our full humanity.

  3. I agree Barry. I sort of alluded to that when I wrote:

    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.

    Of course saying it directly is much more helpful. thanks.

  4. Just a note of hello and appreciation for another great post. I feel a resonance with your style of expression and much of the content.

    Have a pleasant weekend.
    Namaste.

    Wendy

  5. enjoyed reading this Nella, I think you did a fine interpretation.
    to me this is like saying no man is an island. no one is completely self sufficient.

  6. I like this statement I don’t need interpretation it makes complete sense to me I was just curious of its origin

  7. I thought this saying ment if your life is to perfect there is nothing interesting in it

  8. Pingback: Juuni Taisen Zodiac War Episode 9 Review: The Man Who Chases Two Rabbits Catches Neither | MANGA.TOKYO

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