Chop Wood, Carry Water

There is a famous Zen Buddhist saying:

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

I’m not sure where I first read it, but it was years ago, and it stuck with me. I think it stuck with a lot of people, because there seem to be several books with this title, although some, at least, are American motivational books — you probably know the genre. To the best of my knowledge, Zen Buddhist monks are not exactly into American-style motivation. Especially not the kind where your Zen is supposed to increase corporate profits.

My understanding of the saying is as follows: enlightenment does not change your life. Before you are enlightened, you should focus on the ordinary things in life. After enlightenment, the same. You still need to chop wood for the fire. You still need to carry water to make your soup.

I’ve always liked this focus on the ordinary, and it has always resonated with me. When I’m stressed or anxious, which is often, I try to think about what I can do that is simple, physical, and useful. Like laundry. Or shopping for groceries. Or cleaning the bathroom. That is my equivalent of chopping wood and carrying water.

My favorite way of chopping wood or carrying water isn’t useful in the same way as cleaning the bathroom — it’s not an absolute necessity. But I think a Zen monk would approve. It’s working in the garden. My garden does not feed me: it’s too shaded for anything to grow that would be at all useful for soup, although it does attract rabbits, which . . . No, I won’t go there. My hypothetical Zen monk is shaking his head at me. He does not approve of joking about rabbit soup! My garden is purely ornamental, except when it’s scraggly, as it is now, at the beginning of fall when the hostas are starting to disintegrate. Soon they will die back to the ground, to come up again in spring. The bleeding hearts are dying back as well, and so are the heucheras, although there are still clusters of purple leaves coming up — the heucheras hang on as long as they can. The astilbes bloomed earlier this summer, and by this point they look like dried sticks. Green leaves are starting to turn yellow or go skeletal. Slowly everything is dying back, and soon the garden will look almost bare. The shrubs will still raise their stems, bare and brown except for the rhododendrons, which keep their leaves through the winter. Only the hellebores will remain green — like green umbrellas rising over the brown garden.

It won’t happen right away. It’s only September, and we usually have at least one more warm spell before the cold comes. But autumn is here, as certainly as there are pumpkins in the grocery store. I have already filled several flower pots with chrysanthemums, which will last only one season.

There is a great deal to do in the garden before the snow comes, even though I leave most of the garden to die back naturally. I do some pruning, a bit of tidying, and that’s all. I let the fallen leaves form a protective mulch, which benefits insects, and ultimately the birds that feed on them. Anyway, I think the untidiness of a garden in autumn is beautiful — sort of like a room filled with old furniture, some of it rather shabby, but all of it showing evidence of past richness. However, I lost some plants over the summer, so new ones are coming to replace them. I need to work on the soil, adding compost and nutrients. And not quite yet, but soon, there will be bulbs to plant for next spring.

But of course there are other ways to chop wood, carry water. Cooking, knitting, mending clothes. Any of the ordinary things we need to accomplish in life that do not (this is the important part) involve screens. I have nothing against screens, I am writing this on a screen, but there is something not quite real about this flat surface through which we so often access the world. It is infinitely useful, but interacting with it is sometimes like trying to pick an apple from a painting of an orchard. Even a painting, with its subtle bumps and ridges, offering evidence that once, there was an artist (an observing eye, a hand holding a brush) feels more real and tangible than the screen I work on as I write. I can conjure up images of apples, but they will have no scent, no taste. Every once in a while, we need to eat the apple.

(The images is Apples by Pierre-Auguste Renoire.)

I wrote the first part of this post back in September, and meant to finish, but my life has been so busy that I did not come back to it until now. Some of what I’ve been doing constitutes chopping wood and carrying water. There is always laundry to do, always grocery shopping. The small, mundane things in life are always there, and to be honest, sometimes they get me through the larger, more difficult things, the things that make me anxious — like working on significant writing projects or designing the new curriculum I will teach this spring.

I am no more enlightened now than I was in September, but my garden is just as beautiful. Less green, more yellow with leaves that have fallen from the linden trees. The hostas have died down to the ground, the periwinkles and hellebores are still green. I had two roses, and first the rabbits ate one, and now they have eaten the other, so I will replace it with something more sturdy, less tasty for rabbits — a hydrangea or camellia. My garden is based on two fundamental principles: plants must be able to live in shade, and they must taste bad to rabbits and squirrels. The squirrels don’t eat my plants, but they dig and dig and dig everywhere, so if I plant bulbs, they will be eaten — except daffodil bulbs. I’m glad that daffodil bulbs are, apparently, unacceptable to the squirrel palate.

The routine, ordinary things are always with us. And I think ultimately they save us — from boredom, sadness, the sense that life is just too big and overwhelming, which I suppose we all feel sometimes. So wash your face, make your bed, mend that rip in your coat. Chop wood, carry water.

(The image is Apfelbaum I by Gustav Klimt.)

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1 Response to Chop Wood, Carry Water

  1. This reminds me of Jack Kornfield’s book “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”

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