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“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”

I just spotted this one on Twitter:

The language is all wrong for the Buddha, and this sounds very 20th century, with a strong dose of self-help.

At first the earliest source I could find for these exact words was from 1993, from a book by John Mason called You’re Born an Original, Don’t Die a Copy!, except there the final word is “perseverance” rather than the “persistence” of the quote on Twitter. There’s no attribution given there, and in a later book, Know Your Limits — Then Ignore Them he just refers to it as a “famous old saying.”

So we now have:

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”

I found that Readers Digest Quotable Quotes attributes this to H. Jackson Brown, again with “perseverance” rather than persistence.

This helped me find many other identical attributions, including one to Brown’s A Father’s Book of Wisdom. In that book, published 1988 by Rutledge Hill, he attributes the saying to “Dad.” So far I haven’t found any instances of that exact quote before 1988, so this may be our source.

It’s been attributed elsewhere to Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, but the origins of this exact wording are unclear at present.

It’s almost certainly too literary in style to be something from the Pali canon (although a translator can of course add some “polish.”

One early source for the image of water being stronger than rock is Chapter 78 of the Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, here in J. H. McDonald’s translation:

Water is the softest and most yielding substance. Yet nothing is better than water,
for overcoming the hard and rigid,
because nothing can compete with it.
Everyone knows that the soft and yielding overcomes the rigid and hard,
but few can put this knowledge into practice.

The Tao Te Ching was written around 400 BC and is traditionally credited to the sage Laozi (Lao Tzu). It’s a foundational text of Taoism, which has a resemblance to Buddhism. But the Tao Te Ching is not a Buddhist text.

The same image, although without mentioning either water or rock by name, is found in Chapter 43 of the Tao Te Ching:

That which offers no resistance, overcomes the hardest substances. That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space.

Most of the Buddha’s own references to streams were to do with “crossing the stream” to the farther shore of Awakening, but here’s one quote where he quotes (seemingly with approval) another teacher’s simile, using the mountain stream to represent impermanence:

Just as a river flowing down from the mountains, going far, its current swift, carrying everything with it, so that there is not a moment, an instant, a second where it stands still, but instead it goes & rushes & flows, in the same way, brahmans, the life of human beings is like a river flowing down from the mountains — limited, trifling, of much stress & many despairs. One should touch this [truth] like a sage, do what is skillful, follow the holy life. For one who is born there is no freedom from death.

The Buddha did talk about how wind and water can wear away an inscription on rock, which is the closest I’ve found. But the intent there is to show the robustness of rock, not the power of water:

There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

Verses 121 and 122 of the Dhammapada use water as a symbol of persistence, but that’s in relation to filling a pot, not to wearing away rock:

121. Think not lightly of evil, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil.

122. Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.” Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.

I’m not familiar with any verse from the Pali canon referring to waters wearing down rocks as a symbol of persistence. If you come across one, please let me know.

10 thoughts on ““In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.””

  1. I’m afraid an unsupported claim that a quote might come from one of two major spiritual traditions doesn’t help me much in tracking down its origins 🙂

  2. Twenty years ago I was trying to understand Zen, and I read as an example the imagery of a stream of water flowing gently around a rock, the idea being in my mind that the rock is an immovable object but a stream can continue its journey by flowing around it. I wish I could remember the source of this information.

  3. In the struggle between the stone and water,
    in time, the water wins.
    ~ Japanese Proverb
    The concept of water being more powerful than stone is a Taoist concept first attributed to Lao Tzu 5th–4th century BCE, China. As with many Taoist concepts, it was quickly adapted by Buddhist teachers. With the spread of Buddhism, especially Zen, the concept migrated into Japan and throughout the world.
    From: http://bit.ly/2DXpXsp

    1. Thank you. There is indeed in the Tao Te Ching a quote about (probably) water being more powerful than (probably) stone:

      What is of all things most yielding,
      Can overwhelm that which is of all things most hard.
      (Waley’s translation, Chapter 43)

      It’s the same basic concept, although not the same quote. Thanks for directing me toward it.

      1. Here’s an even better one from the Tao De Ching:

        “Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water, but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them than can prevail.” (Chapter 78)

  4. I am suspicious about the the word ‘attack’ in the last quote, in referance to water because it yields, it does not attack. It’s an oxymoron. It’s hard to get to the true meaning because it is adjusted through time and in different cultures.

  5. I have always heard this concept said as “The rock is hard, but the stream is patient”. Has anyone heard it said this way before? If so, could you please a reference? Thanks.

  6. Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
    Lao Tzu

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