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6 Meanings of “Chop Wood Carry Water”—Enlightenment Proverb

Lately, the phrase chop wood, carry water has been echoing through my mind. I’ve gone through many different levels of awakening in my life recently, and I believe the universe is trying to tell me something.

The meaning of “Chop wood, carry water” is complex, and in studying it and meditating over it, I have found six meaning or interpretations which have been beneficial to me in this time of my life. If you’ve been experiencing an awakening, this may also be helpful for you.

Old Chinese woman carrying water in pails

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Where Does the Phrase “Chop Wood Carry Water” Come From?

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

This is a Zen Buddhist proverb that gives wisdom about enlightenment. It’s important to remember that enlightenment is a complex process, and in Buddhism, you work toward enlightenment (the end of suffering) through the Eightfold path.

The Definition of Spiritual Enlightenment

Spiritual enlightenment is a process by which a person separates themselves from “the self” (the ego) and sees the world as it is, rather than through the lens of their own suffering.

While some people have a sudden stroke of enlightenment in their lives, most people have to actively do the work on a regular basis to move closer toward enlightenment. (A lot more on that below!)

RELATED POST: 4 Ways to Work Toward Spiritual Enlightenment

What Does the Phrase “Chop Wood Carry Water” Mean?

What does this phrase mean?

We often pursue enlightenment thinking that it will get us out of our meaningless, humdrum lives. That somehow we’re destined for greater things.

When in actuality, spiritual enlightenment is something that happens inside, not outside. After enlightenment, we continue to chop wood, carry water for many reasons.

The meaning of “Chop Wood Carry Water” is very complex and has multiple layers and meanings. Here are the six meanings that I have taken to heart during my own awakening process.

Chop Wood Carry Water Phrase Zen Buddhism

6 Interpretations of Chop Wood Carry Water

1. Enlightenment happens on the inside

Before and after enlightenment, your life may look relatively the same. Before enlightenment, you go about your everyday tasks like brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, and putting the kids to bed. After enlightenment, you still have to do those tasks.

Your outside world has not changed! It’s your inside world, the lens through which you view those tasks, that has changed.

This is why I do a lot of reading, especially of spiritual books. Meditation is another essential for moving toward enlightenment. And again, meditation, reading, and devoting yourself to your inner peace are all things you have to do every day. (More on this below.)

2. Find joy in menial tasks

While few of us in the Western world need to chop wood for our fires or carry water to wash ourselves and drink, there are still so many daily tasks that feel tedious, annoying, menial. Washing dishes, brushing your teeth, commuting to work… just to name a few.

One of my teachers, the great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, has spoken of the importance of doing menial tasks with mindfulness. He uses all manner of examples for this, but my favorite is teeth brushing:

“I am standing here, brushing my teeth. I still have teeth to brush. I have toothpaste and a toothbrush. And my practice is to be alive, to be free to enjoy tooth-brushing.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

When you can be truly in the experience of brushing your teeth (or chopping wood or carrying water), mindful of what you are doing and grateful for the the blessings you have, this is where true enlightenment lies.

3. Contribute to society / serve others

When you chop wood, chances are, you aren’t just chopping for yourself. There are others who are benefiting from the fire you build with that chopped wood. Do you think that woman in the image at the top of this page is carrying all that water for herself? Unlikely.

We live in society, in communities, where our own survival (and happiness, too) is linked with every other member of society. When you achieve enlightenment, you are still responsible for participating in the well being of your community.

Not only is the Buddha a great example of this proverb, but Jesus is also.

Jesus took the time to wash the feet of his disciples. Many would have considered this to be beneath him, but he knew better. He knew that, even as someone who had achieved enlightenment, it was his duty and his pleasure to serve others, to do the tasks that seem below his “pay grade” and to do them with great love.

He did not expect others to serve him although he was a high master. Instead, he served them.

4. Happiness is not something that happens to you

While this one is not a direct meaning of this saying, it is something that I’ve inferred from its words. While #3 was about your inner state changing, this one looks at your outer state.

Like how enlightenment happens on the inside and your outer life remains the same, happiness is something that also occurs on the inside. We spend a lot of time thinking about how our lives would look if we were truly happy. We would have this job, this kind of house, we would make this much money…

All of those things are false. Happiness is available to us right here and now. If our outer life changes, it means nothing about the state of our inner life or suffering. And chances are, if we change the outside without changing what’s going on inside, we’re still going to experience suffering.

In order to truly let go of suffering, we have to do the work, consistently, on the inside.

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5. Enlightenment doesn’t require outer risk

Sure, if you really want to, you can book that meditation retreat. You can go to a sweat lodge, sell all your belongings, move to Indonesia, or whatever other outer risk you could think of.

While those moves might help you awaken your spirit, they also might not. There’s no guarantee. As I mentioned before, there may not be a stroke of enlightenment by which you suddenly become enlightened.

Enlightenment is typically a slow process that you go through over an extended time. You can achieve enlightenment right where you are, in your daily life now. No major moves required.

RELATED POST: Feeling Lost After A Spiritual Awakening? That’s Totally Normal

6. Tend to your spiritual well being with consistency

Whatever you do in your life, consistency is key. For survival, we chop wood and carry water every day to ensure that we have warmth and stay hydrated. Our spiritual well being needs tending just the same.

Meditation, mindfulness, surrender, serving others… these are the daily tasks that keep us spiritually healthy. If you want your spiritual wellness to continue to thrive, you are required to do these things consistently.

And again, these tasks can feel menial sometimes, especially when we are busy, overwhelmed, stressed out, or burnt out. But there’s another saying:

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.

Dr. Sukhraj Dhillion (The Art of Stress-Free Living)

Those times when you are overwhelmed with work is exactly when you need to tend to your spiritual health. (I need to take this to heart more than anyone!)


In conclusion, the meaning of the phrase “Chop wood, carry water” is like an onion. The more you meditate on this Zen proverb, the more you understand about it.

If you’re like me, you’re someone who is still in the awakening process and is learning to master these concepts. (Or perhaps, nowhere near mastery and just starting to nibble at the edges of them!) This phrase is a gem that help you infuse great wisdom into your life!

I hope these interpretations have helped you. Drop me a comment below if you’d like to share your enlightenment journey!

The Meaning of “Chop Wood Carry Water”—Enlightenment Proverb

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