I just spotted this one on Twitter:
In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through persistence. ~Buddha
— Lorraine Newman (@LorraineNewman1) June 14, 2012
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.