“If you let cloudy water settle it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear”

Jeremy O’Kelley contacted me this morning about the following quote:

If you let cloudy water settle
It will become clear
If you let your upset mind settle
Your course will also become clear

This was one I’d never seen before, although I’m very familiar with the image, which is very popular among meditation teachers. In fact in teaching young children about mindfulness it’s common to get them to make a jar filled with glitter. When the jar is shaken up then you see a lot of swirling bits of shiny plastic. Just let the jar sit for a while, and the water naturally clears.

This represents how our turbulent thoughts will settle down and the mind will clear if we simply sit and refrain from stirring up the waters of the mind. It’s a great teaching tool and a wonderful metaphor.

I also recognize the image as canonical. There’s a well-known sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya where the Buddha uses metaphors for the five hindrances, which are sense desire, ill will, laziness and tiredness, worry and restlessness, and doubt. The five hindrances are in fact a remarkably complete inventory of the kinds of distraction we experience both on and off the meditation cushion.

The Samyutta Nikaya passage says that sense desire is like water tainted with dye, ill will is like boiling water, laziness/sleepiness is like “water covered over with slimy moss and water-plants” (i.e. stagnant water), worry/restlessness is like water whipped by the wind, and doubt is like “water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place.”

Here, in full, is the passage on doubt:

Again, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering, and does not know, as it really is, the way of escape from doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, nor can he know and see what is to the profit of others, or of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied.

“Imagine a bowl of water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place. If a man with good eyesight were to look at the reflection of his own face in it, he would not know or see it as it really was. In the same way, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.

Doubt in this sense is not honest skepticism, where we’re not sure what the truth is and are making a good-faith effort to determine it through questioning. It’s more a state of confusion and of low confidence. Clinical depression is a good example of extreme doubt. When we’re depressed the mind lies to us. It tell us that we’re useless (making us forget our accomplishments), that no one cares about us (causing us to ignore the many instances where people have expressed love and concern for us), and tells us that we’ll never be happy again (even though we have ample experience of unpleasant mental states having previously arisen and passed away). Doubt is a liar. It does the opposite to seeking the truth.

In this sutta the Buddha is talking about doubt regarding teachings or practices. The Brahmin who questions him is asking about why sometimes he is unable to make sense of the “mantras.” Here too, doubt lies. We can find ourselves believing, for example, that meditation doesn’t work, or that we can’t meditate. In that state of unclarity we are unable to recall instances where we’ve felt happier after meditating, and lose faith that we’ve changed as a result of our practice, even though we’ve noted that fact many times before. Our ability to see our practice, ourselves, and our memories is obscured, just as our vision is obscured by muddy water.

The quote in question is from page 119 of Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” the title of which has led many people to assume it’s a book of scriptural quotations. Actually it’s Jack’s own adaptations and distillations of wisdom from various traditions.

In turn it seems to be based on a saying in chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching, which in Mitchell’s version is:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

I’m told that Mitchell doesn’t know any Chinese and that his rendition of the Tao Te Ching is the result of him playing around with other translations, so this may not reflect what the original says, but nevertheless it may be the basis of the quote in question.

I’m in no position to assess the relative accuracy of translations of Chinese texts. But this same verse, in Philip J. Ivanhoe’s translation, is rather different:

Who can, through stillness, gradually make muddy water clear?
Who can, through movement, gradually stir to life what has long been still?

In Moeller’s translation this is:

If that which is turbid is kept still, it will gradually clear up.
If it is moved, it will gradually come alive.

So our fake quote is apparently a contemporary Buddhist’s recasting of a Daoist saying, rather than something the Buddha taught. That doesn’t call the wisdom of the quote into question, of course. It just means we shouldn’t call it a quote from the Buddha.

19 thoughts on ““If you let cloudy water settle it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear””

  1. From Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching, translation by Victor H. Mair:
    If turbid waters are stilled,
    they will gradually become clear;
    If something inert is set in motion,
    it will gradually come to life.

    1. “Do you have the patience to wait
      Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
      Can you remain unmoving
      Till the right action arises by itself?”

      ― Lao Tzu

      1. Thanks very much for this source, which looks like it may well be the original text from which the quote above is adapted. I see it’s from Chapter 15 of the Mitchell translation.

    2. Well, if I remember correctly. The Buddha taught Ananda this at the time of his death by asking Ananda to fetch him some water from a nearby stream that just had man oxcarts cross it. Seems to be the exact same teaching.

      1. Hi, JP.

        There is a section in the Mahāparinibbānasutta when Ānanda is asked to fetch water from a river. Ānanda is unwilling because he knows the water has been churned up by cart wheels, but the Buddha insists that the water is clear. And it turns out that the Buddha is correct, to Ānanda’s surprise. But the Buddha doesn’t say anything about the mind being like cloudy water. At least not in that Sutta. As I mention in the article, the Buddha does compare the mind with doubt as being like muddy water, but the quote here isn’t from that sutta either.

  2. I just found this site while I was searching for the S. Mitchell version of the quote, which I read in Jack Kornfield’s book. I love the quote and it got me (is getting me) through a late career layoff and job transition. I am a content editor for a company that provides indexes of academic research and a library clerk, so I appreciate knowing where this actually comes from. I’m still very new to Buddhism and am mostly learning about it through a Western lens (Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Mark Epstein, and Robert Thurman, with some of the 14th Dalai Lama and Thicht Naht Hanh throw in). Thanks for the site, I know I’ll be back!

    1. I’m glad you like the site, Juliet. And thank you for welcoming me to your junk mail folder! 😉

      1. LOL, right?! If I had had more foresight in the 1990s when I created it, I definitely would have called it something a little more subtle… 😌

  3. just appreciating how much right effort and energy you have put into this website, Bodhipaksa. was digging around for this quote from the Tao te Ching and landed on this page, where of course I am getting all kinds of great context and background on translations. thank you!!!

    1. Thanks for that reference. The metaphor of dirty water becoming clear is used several times. The closest one is this:

      This is like purifying muddy water in a clean container; left unshaken in complete calmness, the sand and mud will sink to the bottom. When the clear water appears, this is called the first suppression of the intruding evil element of passion. When the mud has been removed leaving behind only the clear water, this is called the permanent cutting off of basic ignorance. Enlightenment is (pure and) unmixed; and its manifestations are not of the nature of kleśa, but are in accord with the immaculate virtues of Nirvāṇa.

      It’s not connected with the story about the Buddha asking Ānanda to fetch water, though.

  4. And if you understand why the Buddha told Ananda to do it it becomes clear, Ananda was great at temembering things, not so good as realizing things. If it is not an physical teaching of the way to calm the mind I don’t know what is.

  5. Is our own practice that count. No one knows the actual time of such as it was the past. Sutra only begins from recalls, “Thus as I heard”. Although the purpose of trying to do justice what should be, however since it happened in the past. Not to be trapped by “finger pointing the moon.” Is one own awakening of the path that’s matter. Your awakening on the matter might differ from another. Does it matters? A sleeping Buddha can only be awakened by oneself.

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