Chop wood, carry water

"Before enlightenment," the Zen saying goes, "chop wood, carry water." The path starts here, with so much excitement about all the wood and water there is. Trees are felled with great effort and broken into manageable pieces then stacked into piles of trophy-like proportions. Alternately, we will see our reflection in various pools from which we can draw meaning and motivation as we gather and carry it to quench our thirst when we chop the next batch of wood.

Eventually we collect so much that we can barely get around. What was once illuminating can grow to obscure our view. And yet it is not enough. We begin to see that we need to let go of these well-understood stockpiles. If we keep these stores of wood we can never be warmed by them, nor see our true selves in these batches of water we gather.

We might wonder if we could be approaching enlightenment. But the Zen saying tells us even when we are enlightened we will continue to chop wood, and carry water. So, we might wonder, what's the point? Probably it's that our reasons change. We are able to see that the needs we once sought to compensate actually have never really existed except as we chose to engage the illusion of separation and duality. Even enlightenment then is just a flash in the bucket. We see we have always been acting on what underlies enlightenment even as we thought we didn't have it.

If we are careful at this point, we could move beyond the illusional duality of ignorance and enlightenment only to see there is no true beyond -- just as there really wasn’t a before. We find ourselves standing still, but not with comparison to our former busy selves. This stillness is an IS-ness that is always present and always will be. We see that even the notion that we are not present is only a notion. For everything we perceive as other, past, present, future, can only occur in the powerful present. And there we have it…again and anew.

We have a heightened awareness of how our perceptions work even when we create the illusion that something doesn’t work. We see that we are the choice point, we are the stillness, we are essentially the void, through which everything comes and goes. We find enlightenment is not some great illumination we attain over time, but simply being empty of attachment to need and being weighed down.

Happily this does not necessarily translate into taking up the ascetic life. In fact it is only at this point that we can truly receive the joyful peaceful life we could never have managed or controlled into our experience. At any time, we can step off that beaten path and allow ourselves to freely participate in this process of cleanly and clearly bringing life into expressience. We can still chop wood and carry water, but now we can also stop, build a fire, and enjoy a nice cup of tea.

The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment, every sin already carries grace in it. Herman Hesse

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