Chop, carry

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. – Zen saying

Several days ago, a tornado stormed through my little town and in about 10 minutes or so dumped torrential rains and brought down countless trees. Among them was a yellowwood which was unwisely planted just below our telephone and electric line 10 years ago. A few weeks ago we had woken up to a large branch from said tree leaning against the house, so it wasn’t surprising that the rest of it had had it when the storm came.

This morning we chopped up the tree and hauled it into the woods, where it can happily disintegrate. For some reason I didn’t grow up helping out with these kind of chores – nor did I remotely have any interest in the domestic ones – but nowadays I find it some of the best daily practice. Unlike work activities that require language to get done, physical labor naturally tends toward concentration and tranquility (though this mind certainly doesn’t!). Being a problem-solver by nature, I don’t even have to think about it but, intuitively know how to attack a fallen tree in the most efficient way. Awareness is impenetrable: cutting, dragging, piling, sweating, back tightening… It’s so different when the thing needing to be organized is people or information or events. I’m likely to be caught in a cascade of planning, worrying, and vengeful thoughts. The mental anguish that can ensue. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t consider a less intellectual line of work all together. However, for the time being, just this.

I don’t know anything about poetry but when I was on retreat at my home sangha last week, these words suddenly emerged. It wasn’t a creative process; like hauling the tree, it was just pure being.

Morning mist / after storm

Smell of dog shit / heron soars above

This just this.

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  1. Funny–Ads by Google on this post tells me where I can go to have someone else cut up my tree.

    I can relate to what you say about seemingly mundane physical work. I sometimes wish I’d gone into a field like landscaping or become a park ranger.

    On your poetic lines, I think you have the raw material for a terrific haiku in that second pair.

    • Ultimately I know it doesn’t matter. As we become more skillful in daily life practice, there’s less separation between formal and informal practice and whatever activity we’re doing should be supportive. I think just the fact that we over-emphasize intellectual knowledge so much in this culture and that therefore, in terms of conditioning, we are so much more heavily weighted toward the discursive, activities that help give some spaciousness in that regard are really helpful. Perhaps if I’d given the post a different title the ads would be different? I got Cyndi Lauper in my head and that was that!

      Re the verse, coming from you, a great compliment. Thank you.

      • Katherine, thanks for the reply. FYI, I just read your most recent post and noted a reference to Carleton. Blew me away…my daughter is a rising Carleton sophomore who has been sitting weekly with the campus Buddhist meditation group.

        • What a nice thing to have in common. We didn’t have a sitting group when I was there. Glad for your daughter that there’s one now.


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