Chop Wood Carry Water – The True Meaning
by Michael Kohler
There is an old Zen proverb which states “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
There have been many debates over the years as to what this means. For example, what is the difference between chopping wood and carrying water before or after enlightenment? What would chopping wood or carrying water have to do with the concept of enlightenment at all?
Some have come to the conclusion that the acts of chopping wood and carrying water represent those things that you do during your life, the mundane tasks that that we all must do on a regular basis such as their jobs, taking care of our children, or doing routine work around the house.
However, that’s not quite it…
It is assumed that enlightenment is something separate from these tasks, and that enlightenment may occur during these random times in our life, apart from that which we normally do every day.
However, enlightenment is only possible through chopping wood and carrying water. These two tasks are nothing more than a representation of the path to enlightenment. That is because, in this Zen proverb, they are not merely referencing the things that we do every day.
What this proverb is talking about is the state of mind that you must have in order to receive things that would qualify as enlightenment. Those things that are outside of the normal parameters of perception. When you are doing a routine task, such as chopping wood or carrying water, those are things that you are doing in the moment. Those are the things that you are focused on… at that moment in time.
It is through these routine activities that we are able to detach ourselves from the internal dialogue. We are able to escape the prison of our own minds in that moment, that moment where we are chopping wood and carrying water.
For some, this may occur when they are going on a walk. For others, they could be riding the bicycle on a very scenic trip that allows them to distract themselves from what they are always do or the problems of the day.
The key is to stop the mind, even for a moment, so that enlightenment, which sits outside the bubble of our awareness, can come in. It’s always there, waiting to provide us with insight. However, we will never have access to enlightenment unless we find a way to prevent the continuity of our mind from fixating our attention on a perpetual basis.