Chop Wood, Carry Water; Lay down your burden, then pick it up again

 Each moment is part of an era. Each era is part of a time. I like to think of myself as a child of the ‘60’s. In my mind, the ‘60’s were dramatic and romantic. The ‘60’s were the era of hippies, they were the time of free love. They were the time of deep social unrest and protest, of fighting for civil rights and to end the Viet Nam war. The ‘60’s culminated in Woodstock, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” at at Max Yasgur’s farm in of Bethel, New York.  Woodstock happened in 1969 and brought the ‘60’s to their fulfillment.  I wanted to be a child of the ‘60’s. I wanted to be at Woodstock. I found out about it after it was over. I was a child of the ‘70’s.

In college I discovered Asia. I took a course in world religions, and discovered Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. I fell into deep infatuation with Zen Buddhism, and began to aspire to enlightenment. Some of that occasionally seeps into this blog, I think.

Today I am remembering a book I read a while back: Chop wood and carry water. The essence of the book is that before enlightenment we must chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment we continue to chop wood and carry water.  In my youth I used to play with this and say that we should chop water and carry wood. Then it was funny because it was clear that I was playing with the words. Now that I am older, when I play like that people are inclined to think about early onset Alzheimer’s. I am a bit more aware of who and where I play now. It is important to remember and respect the era within which you walk as you play. If you would be with me, it is also important to be aware of the depth and luminosity of the twinkle in my eye. Sometimes playing is just playing.

There is a Zen story that I’m fond of (there are many actually, but here is one of them). It reminds me of “Chop wood and carry water.” The story is called “Lay down your burden then pick it up again”

A troubled woman named Tan could not figure out how to live. So she began meditating to find some answers. After many months she felt no progress, so she asked the temple priest for help. 

The priest said, “Go see old Jah.” 

So she hiked to old Jah’s village and came upon the happy-looking old man coming from the forest under a heavy load of firewood. 

“Excuse me, honored Jah,” she said. “But can you teach me the secret of life?” 

Jah raised his eyebrows and gazed at Tan. Then with some effort he twisted out from beneath his great bundle of firewood and let it crash to the ground. 

“There, that is enlightenment,” he said, straightening up with relief and smiling. 

The troubled woman looked on in shock at the prickly firewood scattered over the ground. “Is that all there is to it?” she said. 

“Oh, no,” said Jah. Then he bent down, collected all the scattered sticks, hoisted them carefully up on his back and made ready to walk on. “This is enlightenment, too. Come. Let’s go together for tea.” 

So Tan walked along with Jah. “What is old Jah showing me?” she asked. 

Jah replied, “this is life, this is enlightenment. First, yes, you suffer a heavy burden. Many do. But, as the Buddha taught and many have realized, much of your burden and much of your joylessness is your craving for what you can’t have and your clinging to what you can’t keep. 

“Then you can see that the nature of your burden and of the chafing you experience as you try to cling to it are useless, unnecessary, damaging, and then you can let it go. 

“In doing so, in awakening to this awareness you find relief, and you are freer to see the blessings of life and to choose wisely to receive them.” 

“Thank you, old Jah,” said Tan. “And why did you call picking up the burden of firewood again enlightenment as well?” 

“One understanding is that some burden in life is unavoidable — and even beneficial, like firewood. With occasional rest it can be managed, and with freedom from undue anxiety about it, it will not cause chafe. 

“Once the undue burden is dropped, we straighten up and see and feel the wonder and power of being. Seeing others suffering without that freedom and blissful experience, we willingly and knowingly pick up their burdens out of compassion joining and aiding others in their various struggles for liberation, enlightenment and fulfillment.” 

“Thank you, Old Jah,” said the exhilarated Tan. “You have enlightened me.” 

“Ah-so,” said Jah. “Your understanding is enlightened. Now to make it part of your living and your spirit, you must go follow the eight practices and meditate. Then you will learn to detach yourself from your useless burden of cravings and to attach yourself to the profound source of being out of which life, creativity, joy and compassion form and flow.” 

And so Tan went and did. And understanding the truths gave her comfort. And practicing the good behaviors kept her from harming herself or others anymore. And concentrating on the deep blissful potential of life gave her a continuing sense of companionship and joyful awe and of well-being in his spirit, no matter what else of pain she had to deal with. 

So it is as well with our work for social justice and human rights. It is a process, a path we choose to walk. Some days we feel like Sisyphus  continually pushing the rock of fairness up the hill only to have it roll back down on us. But, as we let go of our attachments to what should be and open our hearts and minds to what is and what can be, we can begin to notice and celebrate the progress that together we are achieving. We are each of us a drop in the ocean, and together we are the waves that wash ever more powerfully on the beach of fairness and dignity. Let no one doubt the power of the ocean and the tides.

We may lay down our burdens, and we will take them up again. We will chop wood and carry water. The times they are a-changing. Peace, justice and dignity will reign across our land.

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3 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Carry Water; Lay down your burden, then pick it up again

  1. There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moments pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

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