“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 this 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 the quote before 1988, so this may be our source.

It’s been attributed elsewhere to Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, but the origins 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.”

Most of the Buddha’s 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.

I’m not familiar with any verse from the Pali canon referring to waters wearing down rocks, but it’s a big canon, and I haven’t read it all…

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

  1. um… well i was just sharing my thoughts on the post and was hoping it might contribute ‘your’ search. I’m not actively seeking anything.

    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. Sorry, I was being snarky. What I mean is that a claim about the origins of a quote made on the internet (or elsewhere) holds no validity unless it points to a primary source. But as it happens there is 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.

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