“If you want to draw water you do not dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well.”

The religious scholar Reza Aslan has recently been much discussed because of his skillful handling of a cringe-worthy Fox News interview with Lauren Green, on the topic of his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:

This will give you a flavor, in case you’re not in a position to watch the video:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”
— Fox News’ Lauren Green to religious scholar Reza Aslan

“Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions.”
— Aslan

“It still begs the question. Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
— Green

Yesterday Aslan did an AMA on Reddit. An AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) is where an expert in some field opens her or himself up to questions from “Redditors.” The resulting discussion was interesting and frequently amusing. But there was one odd thing: a Fake Buddha Quote:

“I think the Buddha said it right: If you want to draw water you do not dig six one-foot wells. You dig one six-foot well. Islam is my six foot well. I like the symbols and metaphors it uses to describe the relationship between God and humanity. But I recognize that the water I am drawing is the same water that every other well around me is drawing. And no matter the well, the water is just as sweet!”

Now I’ve seen western Buddhist teachers use this metaphor, but I don’t think the metaphor itself is from the Buddhist tradition. So far the two earliest references I’ve found are this one in the Economist, from 1821:

A company of Arabs, fainting with thirst, once came to a trifling spring, not sufficient for the supply of their wants. One of them exhorted them to dig, assuring them that in half an hour they could obtain a superabundance of water … [some] seeing that the supply proceeded so slowly, began to dig; but avarice had taken possession of their hearts; and each proceeded to dig a well for himself … the few, meantime … soon came to another favorable spot. They immediately UNITED to dig ONE well; and they were speedily rewarded with superabundance.

It’s a rather long passage, so I’ve taken the liberty of condensing it. The main point here is to stress cooperation, but the image does advocate digging one deep well as opposed to many shallow ones.

Although the dramatis personnae are Arab, this can only be suggestive of a Middle Eastern origin, and there’s no source given for the tale.

Martin Lings’ What is Sufism (1975), however, points to a Sufi source:

“The self-deceivers in question are, to quote a Sufi of the last century (the Shaykh ad-Darqāwī) ‘like a man who tries to find water by digging a little here and a little there and who will die of thirst; whereas a man who digs deep in one spot, trusting in the Lord and relying on Him, will find water; he will drink and give others to drink’ (Letters of a Sufi Master (Perennial Books, London, 1969) p. 29.

Ad-Darqāwī was a Moroccan Sufi who lived from 1760 to 1823, so he died just after the Economist article was published. I can’t tell if Ad-Darqāwī invented the image or drew upon an existing tradition. I’d imagine the latter.

If this is a quote from an Islamic source, then it’s a little ironic that a Muslim religious scholar thought it was Buddhist.

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