A disciple once asked the late Most Venerable Sheng Yi, “Will you be reborn in the Tusita Heaven* when you enter Ultimate Nirvana someday, like Master Xu Yun [Sheng Yi’s Dharma Father]?”
The Master replied, “Nothing is definite. It’s like flowing water, and I’ll go anywhere in accordance with the conditions.”
It is a commonly held belief in many traditions that realized or beloved Masters follow in the footsteps of powerful bodhisattvas** and return to the world to continue helping beings. The Most Venerable’s reply to his disciple’s question would therefore seem to bear great meaning. It is a very clear-sighted reply that takes note of the truth of conditions and causes. But it is also a tender response that is open to compassionate activity anywhere in the universe – like flowing water.
Water, as observed by many sages and poets, cannot be restricted in any way. It simply goes where the conditions take it: whether it is poured into a cup, frozen into ice, evaporated into the sky, channeled into the streams of forests, or returned to the vast ocean. It never truly leaves us, even though the presence of water is ever changing, and its nature impermanent.
So it is with life, and hope. The Most Venerable’s answer to the question of his life was not merely an off-the-cuff speculation. It paid tribute to the ever-flowing, ever-going, yet ever-staying nature of flowing water, which can go anywhere – in accordance with the conditions at hand. Water is realistic. Water is also real in the same way hope is real. As elusive as its nature is, “hope” will be kept alive so long as life is lived with hope. I think this is the message of all Buddhist Masters and their bodhisattva teachers.
Ultimately, flowing water is a Buddhist metaphor for one single reason, the most important one that encompasses all others: water is the bringer of life.
* The Tusita Heaven is the holy dwelling and sanctum of the future Buddha, Maitreya. But for the saviour bodhisattva, his transcendent throne is only a stopping point. His work is not complete; according to Buddhist eschatology, he will come and bring back love, compassion (and commonsense) when the world has lost its way completely in ignorance and violence.
** In the Chinese and broader East Asian tradition, the four great bodhisattvas are Avalokiteshvara (the Lord who Looks Down), Manjushri (Prince of Glory), Ksitigarbha (Earth-Matrix) and Samantabhadra (Universal Good).