A student in a Buddhist temple was working hard, trying to achieve Enlightenment. But he was also having to do hard, practical work around the temple, like chopping wood and carrying water, which were essential tasks. He would complain to his Master, “what should I do while I’m waiting for Enlightenment?” And the Master always said, “Chop wood, carry water.” The student, perhaps a little disgruntled, then asked, “And after I achieve Enlightenment? What then?” And the Master smiled. “Chop wood. Carry water.”

I first encountered a version of this story many years ago, and have found it in many places since, always slightly different, but always with the essential beats: the student who doesn’t grasp that ordinary, mundane life grinds on regardless of the grand voyages of your enlightened soul. The Master who has had this conversation with too many idealistic but naive students to count, who don’t understand that the temple needs water and chopped wood to function.

It means a lot to me, and I was thinking a lot about it just today while I was the local pool, slogging out an hour of heavy-duty walking laps. I feel quite depressed today, but I decided to go and be depressed at the pool as opposed to staying home where I could be a greasy depressed stain on the couch. At the pool I could at least do something worthwhile, despite feeling lousy.

So there I was, doing my thing. I realised I was chopping wood and carrying water, just like in the story. Exactly what Enlightenment might mean for me, I’m not sure.

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