Enlightenment: Chopping Wood, Carrying Water

Do you feel that enlightenment, or spiritual awakening, is out of your reach because it's reserved for a select few?


“Before enlightenment
Chopping wood, Carrying Water
After enlightenment
Chopping wood, Carrying Water”

— Zen proverb

This is one ancient adage I absolutely love. It is profound, precise and relevant even today.

It is a great source of personal comfort because it tells me that becoming enlightened or awakened is a realization, not an achievement. And it’s strictly private too.

Enlightenment Isn’t Extraordinary

We are surrounded by all kinds of concepts portraying enlightenment as if it was some scarce and precious item that can only be “purchased” by spending time and effort—not to mention other resources.

“Jet age” gurus fashionably proclaim that they have achieved awakening after a period of great search and struggle. What is amusing is many of these gurus would like us to believe that enlightenment is reserved for a select few.

They also significantly alter their appearance and lifestyle, thereby giving the impression that enlightenment transforms an individual completely. And then, they promise to show you the path but add conditions and prescribe many impracticable rules.

Naturally then, most unsuspecting folk come to believe that becoming enlightened is some extraordinary phenomenon that is out of reach for “ordinary” people—it requires giving up daily life and everything associated with it. This idea of enlightenment makes them feel inferior.

What Enlightenment Really Means

If you, like many, have fallen for the idea that spiritual awakening is reserved for a chosen few and requires one to go to the Himalayas and spend years meditating, it’s time to open your eyes.

Allow me to share what I have come to understand:

  1. Enlightenment, at best, refers to ‘awakening’ or awareness of being aware. And such awareness isn’t knowledge or wisdom that can be transferred from one to another. If anyone promises to make you enlightened, take my advice and run from there. For, a real guru will direct you to look within for guidance and inspiration, and will leave you alone when you are ready.
  2. Becoming enlightened is not reserved for a select few. It is available to everyone, no matter who you are and what you do for a living.
  3. Enlightenment is free of rules and encumbrances and requires nothing of you on the outside, least of all giving up your present lifestyle.
  4. Ancient Zen and Buddhist teachings indicate that enlightenment is silent and inconspicuous. It cannot be defined or described—it is an inner phenomenon that can only be experienced, not understood or expressed. In fact, even the word enlightenment is a burden because it points to an idea that doesn’t exist tangibly.
  5. Lastly, enlightenment transforms an individual—but the change happens within, not without. On the outside, your life goes on as before, such that no one else may even sense the change. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.”

So, continue to chop, carry, sell, buy, repair, cook, manage, relate—do all that you would in your routine life—on your way to enlightenment. And when you awaken, you will realize that the world is the same—it is you who has changed.

The author updated this post on 28 August 2018
Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri has spent the last two decades learning, teaching and writing about wellbeing and mindful living. He has contributed over 1500 articles for several newspapers and magazines including The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Statesman, Mid-Day, Bombay Times, Femina, and more. He is a counseling therapist and the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed best-selling book on self-transformation. An award-winning editor, Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".


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