Carry Water, Chop Wood
There is a lot of wisdom in Zen Buddhism and one of my favourite proverbs from this discipline goes something like this. A Zen Master was asked how his life changed once he became enlightened. He replied “Well, before enlightenment, I would carry water and chop wood. After I became enlightened, I carry water, and chop wood.”
So today I am taking it upon myself to delve into what this Master meant when he said this.
Upon first glance it would appear nothing has changed. It would seem to most people that his life hadn't improved at all although he claimed enlightenment. Some would think that enlightenment would be freedom from the strife of daily life, that work would not exist, that we, once enlightened would sit in idle meditation and feel peace and happiness all day long with no commitments, no responsibilities to tend to.
After all, most of us, when we encounter difficulties in our daily life, give the reason that life is hard work. We work hard and we don't make enough money, we have to work long shifts, our children give us grief and even if they don't they are hard work, work is, well it's hard work. We all long for that day in the future when we can stop working and relax, enjoy, be free from all of that responsibility. That, we think, is shangri la, that will be heaven. We won't have nearly as many problems once we no longer have to work.
So how could the Zen master be happy, be fulfilled, be at peace, if indeed that is what enlightenment is? What does this mean? How can, paradoxically, everything change and yet fundamentally remain the same.
My interpretation is that we don't have to wait until the magical age of 55 or 60 or 65 to enjoy the peace, the relaxation, the joy that we dream retirement brings. We don't have to die even, go to heaven, that wonderful place reserved for a privileged few, (which few of course, depends on what sect of whichever religion you subscribe to). I think the proverb means we can have that peace, the one promised in almost every religion on earth, right here, right now, in this life.
What I believe the Zen Master was trying to say was that the key is to find a way to peace now, whatever the circumstances of your life. That we have a choice. We can carry water and chop wood and be miserable or we can carry water and chop wood and be happy. But no matter what, we all have to carry water and chop wood.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In order to have this "peace in all circumstances" we have to become enlightened. The path to enlightenment can be a long one, unlike The Buddha, Siddhartha we are unlikely to sit under a pippala tree, and know everything suddenly. Or, maybe we will. In Buddhism it is considered possible that all can become a Buddha, it just might take many lives to do so. But even the Buddha was 35 before he became enlightened and had taken a journey searching for it, it really wasn't instant.
What has to happen, what we need to do as humans is to start on the journey. Look for mini-enlightenment. Take one step at a time to becoming more peaceful, happy, joyful people. Make the conscientious decision to make your life about walking a path that will take you where that peace is. Start using the tools you need to become the person you are meant to be, meditate, study, practice kindness and compassion, lose your judgement of other people, spend time in and take notice of nature, let go of competitiveness and strive not to be better than another person, but rather to be better than you were yesterday.
Try to Take money out of the equation and base life decisions on what you would do if you were not to profit from it, what you would then feel is the right thing to do. Serve others. Smile at people, hold the door for people. Volunteer to help the less fortunate, be kind to your children, promote peace in your walk on this planet and peace will invariably come back to you.
And when it does you will find great joy in carrying water and chopping wood. I cleaned my kitchen today, I put on some music I enjoy and did my work happily and without resentment. It's something I try to make a practice out of and I think it sets a good example for the kids to see me cheerful in my work. I do my share of grumbling too but much much less than I used to. And all the while, remember this, be grateful you have water to carry, wood to chop and a home to clean. And be grateful particularly that you have the health and ability to do so.