The Meaning of the Zen Koan: Chop Wood Carry Water

What is enlightenment really? Is it some kind of ultimate experience? In this post, I consider a different solution while imagining a story behind a Zen koan. What does an old woman’s journey up a mountain reveal?

After my first experience of pure perception driving up Folsom Avenue, I became guilty of the cardinal sin of mindfulness training. I coveted more of the same experience. Instead of being mindfully present to whatever was going on, without judgment, I turned meditation practice into a quest for the ultimate experience. In truth, I still struggle with this. A Zen koan comes to mind.

Before Enlightenment, Chop Wood Carry Water
After Enlightenment, Chop Wood Carry Water

This is how I imagine the story went.

One day an old Zen master stopped everything she was doing (chopping wood and carrying water). She climbed to the top of a tall mountain and back down the other side. Having arrived at her destination, she once again began chopping wood and carrying water.

A simple story, but what does it mean?

For years, I assumed the old woman must have had the ultimate experience at the top of that mountain. She’d achieved enlightenment, divine union, satori—whatever you want to call it—and was completely liberated from pain and suffering. From that point forward, life was total bliss, so why not chop wood and carry water?

Then one day another solution occurred to me. Perhaps, just perhaps, what she discovered was this. A good human life of chopping wood and carrying water is the ultimate experience.

I hope this doesn’t disappoint you. I mean, here we are in this big beautiful world, alive, with a mind that can perceive and process and experience so much wonder, yet we still seek something more—something higher, vaster, greater, deeper. Yada, yada, yada.

This is what I’m starting to think. All our spiritual searching and seeking simply boils down to this. We all want a life of joy and ease. Yet for some reason, we can’t figure out how to make one for ourselves. So, we look for some ultimate experience without ever realizing we’re already having one.

In my own situation, this resulted in chronic pain. Never enough. Always looking for more. I simply forgot how to just be. There is so much joy in just that.

I think that’s the great epiphany the old Zen master had while climbing that mountain. She learned how to find contentment in the simplest things. That’s her legacy.

3 responses to “The Meaning of the Zen Koan: Chop Wood Carry Water”

  1. […] up our level of conscious awareness today via the underlined hyperlink text. The title references a Zen koan. “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry […]

  2. jey340[jj Avatar

    “After enlightenment chop wood carry water” means that after full enlightenment you realize enlightenment is not a great change that turns the universe upside down. It means that after full enlightenment you go back to your original life with one small difference: now you are relaxed and refrain from making yourself suffer. In hindsight it looks like a small change. You haven’t gained anything, you have gotten rid of something insignificant.

    1. kj;lkj; Avatar

      You are not striving for any great accomplishment to make yourself better than other people. You haven’t attained anything that makes you better than other people. Life is simple, tranquil, nothing grand about it.

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Kimberly Holman

Kimberly Holman is a certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher (MMT) with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Maine and an M.A in religious studies from Naropa University.