Chop Wood, Carry Water, Make Chai

April 28, 2023


Do you feel like you know how to live life well?

In Zen Buddhism there is a story regarding the meaning of life which has been summarized in this famous short phrase:

“Before enlightenment; Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Enlightenment;  Chop Wood, Carry Water. ”

But what does enlightenment mean? And what does it mean to chop wood and carry water? Is this helpful in knowing how to live life well? I think so, and here’s why.

Enlightenment is the state of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. You may think that you like life and don’t really want to end living. That’s healthy. That is, in fact, a healthy ego. And you need that to keep going in this life. But there is more to existence than what we think we know now or more than what we have experienced so far.

Ending the cycle of birth and death brings us to the state of pure awareness, where we merge with the cosmic and all distinctions between the self and the universe dissolve. This state of consciousness can be characterized by infinite bliss, peace, and knowledge of the true nature of reality.

Those can be hard concepts to grasp when we have not experienced them or anything even close to what they really mean. It’s also hard to get interested in while we are busy with the daily tasks of earning a living, raising children, paying bills, low sleep levels, and a troubling world environment. That is where “chop wood, carry water” comes in.

The Zen story is from 800 AD, and the daily chores of chopping wood and carrying water are the equivalent of driving our kids around, buying the weekly groceries, or paying our bills online. Doing these things without the anxiety of wanting to be doing something else that is more interesting or more fun is where meaning presides. That is being present. Eventually, we will all be more enlightened than we are now, and we will still need to drive our children around and show up for daily responsibilities.

This journey toward enlightenment involves spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, self-inquiry, and detachment from wanting things to be different from what they are.

The first track in Van Morrison’s 1990 album Enlightenment opens with the lyric “chop that wood, carry water.” A reference to the same Zen story. Layman Pang, the author of that story, was a celebrated Buddhist, husband, father, and successful merchant. Upon experiencing enlightenment he declared that his “supernatural power and marvelous activity” was “drawing water and carrying firewood,” which are regular, necessary, and seemingly mundane tasks of everyday life. Doing those things well is our path to peace, bliss, and knowledge of reality.

The practices I teach, yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda health care, are to support you in your daily life. They can become what supports your daily tasks and also the daily tasks themselves, i.e. before enlightenment, chop wood, and carry water.

Cooking is a form of meditation. For many, it’s a way to relax, feel grounded, practice self-care, and, eat well. There is joy in the process. Cooking also has self-inquiry hidden within it. What do I like? Why am I choosing to eat this, and how does it make me feel? What is the result?

Because cooking is a form of meditation and is one of the three pillars of life within the teaching of Ayurveda (the 3 are Food, Sleep, and Sex), I am sharing my Chai recipe with you in my YouTube video, Indian Chai for Better Digestion.

In India, the word for tea is chai. It’s interesting to note that what we know as tea, which is black tea with milk and sugar, actually originated in India. When India was colonized by England, the English adopted the practice of drinking tea. Chai is made by adding spices to black tea and cooking the herbs and tea together. The unique blend of ingredients makes for a nutritious drink that aids digestion, reduces gas, nourishes Vata, Pitta, and Kapha dosa and so much more.

Here are the ingredients you need to make chai:

  • Filtered water
  • Fresh or dried ginger
  • Cardamom (in the pod or ground)
  • Whole pieces or ground clove
  • Cinnamon
  • Black pepper
  • Milk (any type)
  • Black tea (optional)
  • Honey or any other sweetener (optional)

I’ve noticed that when the English are unsure of what to do, they often turn to drinking tea. For them, tea has become a calming beverage that offers an opportunity to relax, reflect, and gain clarity.

The phrase:

“Before enlightenment; Chop Wood, Carry Water. After Enlightenment;  Chop Wood, Carry Water”

is a reminder to stay focused on your practice, your life, and your daily activities. Doing that will support you to live well and make yourself a cup of chai, it will help you to carry on.

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