Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.Zen quote
When I first heard this, I strangely resonated with it. Just the sequence, the words, what it implied in the moment, everything just felt ok.
Over the years, I went through many levels of understanding. From this point of view, it’s one of the “tallest” quotes I know, as it still reveals a new sense no matter how much I grow, no matter how much experience I gather.
Probably the most basic meaning of it is that enlightenment is not a goal, something that, once reached, will transform us beyond recognition. Enlightenment is more of a process, something that unfolds, that exists uninterruptedly, as we carry on with our lives. This helps us tone down expectations, which are the roots of disillusion, a form of toxic attachment.
But there are many more ways to look at this.
For instance, the perception of enlightenment as the end of our suffering. We tend to prepare for this moment when we will be finally relieved. Once we reach enlightenment, we will be relieved. There will be some sort of redemption, some way in which our suffering will cease. Alas, it won’t happen. Although we will suddenly see things how they are, and not how we are, we will still carry on the current conditioning. We will still be in the same body, with the same shortcomings. Once this last bit of conditioning will fade away, then, maybe, something new will emerge. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t consider myself enlightened, and I also don’t remember (clearly) any of my previous death moments. That’s just what I believe now, in my current situation.
And there’s also the meaning of continuity. Even after enlightenment, the world will still go on. We will still need to chop wood, carry water. The fabric of experience never disappears.
And there’s the meaning of humility in the search of enlightenment. You don’t need expensive teachings, high-profile retreats to meditate for months or dedicated teachers – although, if that’s what makes the wheels moving for you, by all means, go for it. But even in the absence of something spectacular, or exotic, enlightenment is possible. Simple events, like chopping wood, carrying water, can eventually lead to deeper, profound understandings.
And, just to be clear, you don’t need to literally chop wood and carry water. That’s what they did back then. These were cornerstone activities you needed to do day in and day out, for basic survival. These were the chores. In the modern world, they would probably be the equivalent of commuting to work, doing your groceries and cleaning out your house. Yes, just like that.
And yes, just by minding your own business, doing whatever you chose to do and trying your best to be useful to all sentient beings (that includes yourself, by the way) you may, someday, reach a higher level of understanding of the world, something so profound that you will be calling it “enlightenment”.
After which, of course, you will just carry on, living an almost identical life.
Same-same, but different.