Hard as Ice, Fluid as Water: An Allegory on the Stages of a Successful Life

Ice in the form of a heart.

When a distraught young businessman meets a meditating monk by a lakeside he receives a profound lesson about water's transformative states. (Image: Tatyana Mukhomedianova via Dreamstime)

A young businessman was betrayed by his partner and was left without wealth or hope. Desperate and despondent, he decided to end his life by jumping into a lake. On its banks, he encountered a wise monk deep in meditation. Overwhelmed with relief, the man eagerly approached the monk, shared his tragic tale, and sincerely asked for enlightenment to move past this enormous obstacle in his life.

The ice experiment

Smiling gently, the monk led him home and instructed him to retrieve a large, square block of ice from the cellar. Though confused, the businessman complied. Once the ice was out, the monk ordered: “With all your might, break it!”

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Muttering to himself, the man fetched an axe and struck with full force, confident that the ice would shatter. However, his mighty blow only left a faint mark on its smooth surface. Shocked, he lifted the axe again and struck repeatedly. After a while, he gasped, shaking his head: “It’s too hard! The ice is just too hard!”

Ax in a log beside a frozen lake.
The man was unable to break the ice apart using the axe. (Image: Nemeziyaa via Dreamstime)

Silently, the monk placed the ice into an iron pot behind the house to boil. The businessman watched, puzzled, but remembered the monk’s insistence to engrave every step of this process into his heart.

The ice melts

As the pot’s temperature rose, the solid ice began to melt. The businessman found the process tedious. The simple fact that ice turns into water when heated was something he’d known since childhood.

Time passed, and eventually, the ice completely melted. He stared at the bubbling water, growing impatient, even questioning the monk’s wisdom. “The ice has melted! It’s all boiling water now!” he shouted. The monk emerged from the house, calmly asking: “Have you gleaned any insight?”

The man responded enthusiastically: “I’ve realized my approach to the ice was wrong. Instead of using an axe, I should use fire.”

The monk shook his head: “Not enough, not enough.”

The man pondered, then said: “The transformation of ice into water tells me that even the most formidable adversary has its weakness.”

The fact that ice melts into water showed the man that in life, even the most formidable adversary has its weakness.
The fact that ice melts into water showed the man that in life, even the most formidable adversary has its weakness. (Image: Apidech Ninkhlai via Dreamstime)

Again, the monk shook his head: “Not enough, not enough.”

Distressed, the man humbly sought the monk’s wisdom, to which the monk replied with profound gravity: “What you’ve seen represents the three stages in the journey of a successful life:

1. Ice’s tenacity

Although ice is made of water, it’s far harder than water. And, the more it’s exposed to harsh, cold conditions, the more it showcases its steel-like strength. This is the first stage of a successful life — unyielding perseverance.

2. Water’s humility

Water, though cold, has a kind and humble heart. It never competes and always flows to the lowest place, nourishing everything without ever demanding anything in return. This is the second stage of a successful life — benevolence and humility.

3. Vapor’s freedom

Vapor, though seemingly feeble, possesses ultimate freedom. When it gathers, it forms clouds and rain, becoming tangible water. When it disperses, it disappears, drifting between Heaven and Earth. This is the third stage of a successful life — retreating after achieving success.

The human heart is like water; the reason for its diverse abilities, inherent good and evil, and varying desires, is all because of differing states of mind.

Translated by Audrey Wang

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