It is a commonly quoted Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I first came across it at the entry to the Zen Garden in the Arboretum at the University of Guelph, and I was struck motionless. It seemed so obvious; even the attainment of enlightenment doesn’t absolve us of the need to perform the necessities of life. We must maintain our homes, feed ourselves, take care of our bodies (my earlier post notwithstanding), water, feed and nurture the children.
In the past three years, I have chosen to take the chopping wood part of this proverb literally. As we heat primarily with wood, we need to bring about two wheelbarrows full of wood in every day, all winter long, and at least one load most days from November through… oh… June. We also need to start thinking about the next year’s wood somewhere around March or April of the previous year. Are we going to purchase it in 8-foot lengths and spend the next 4 months nibbling away at the problem, or will we simply pay somebody else to to that and take our chances on how dry the wood when we can get somebody to bring it to us? The heating of the house takes up a significant amount of time and energy on our parts, and saves us a relatively small amount of money compared to using electricity.
The wood can be considered to stand for a number of similar choices we have made since moving to Cape Breton. When we are not at risk of frostbite, we hang the clothes on the line. We grow a significant amount of our own food, raise chickens for eggs, and bees. (I hear this is for honey. I haven’t actually gotten anything from the bees yet, but this should be the year, I am assured.) We have enough extra chickens that we can use the egg money to expand the market gardens with a greenhouse this spring. We don’t till, so all the beds have been built with the labour of our own backs. In addition, we cook from scratch, bake our own bread, make soap, make jam, freeze produce, pick berries and whatever the fruit trees give us this summer… in addition to the meal-planning, preparation, household maintenance and tidying that we didn’t leave behind when we left the city.
What seems to get lost in all of this, though, is the other part of the proverb: We are chopping wood, carrying water, feeding kids, doing dishes and, and, and… and what happened to enlightenment? I do not, of course, demand actual enlightenment, although I hear that it’s pretty sweet. No, I merely desire the opportunity to make meaning from my life. Relationships, love, joy, the talents that we brought to the world – these parts of our souls yearn to be expressed but are forever being told that they need to wait until this particular bit of wood has been chopped.
I think it gets pulled out by those of us with an overly developed work ethic to justify our obsessive attention to the necessaries of life. It becomes an end in itself. And, just maybe, it gives us a way to pass by the need to make meaning by letting it happen by default. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out that I let it pass me by because I was too busy supporting life to actually live. That being said, there’s dinner to make, and it’s going to get cold soon. Think I’ll spend a few minutes enjoying the view.