The Yoga Sūtra 4.34
पुरुषार्थशून्यानां गुणानां प्रतिप्रसवः कैवल्यं स्वरूपप्रतिष्ठा वा चितिशक्तिरिति॥
puruṣārthaśūnyānāṁ guṇānāṁ pratiprasavaḥ kaivalyaṁ svarūpapratiṣṭhā vā citiśaktiriti||
Kaivalya is [atttained when there is] the involution of the Guṇas, [now] devoid of purpose for the Puruṣa— or, [when] the power of consciousness is established in its own nature.
Zen Buddhism is classified under Mahayana Buddhism and like most schools of Buddhism has a focus on meditation, self-restraint and insight. A Zen kōan can be a question, statement or short dialogue to encourage the student to present their answer or response to the dialogue in a way that can show their own insight, thought process or reflection.
There are many Zen kōan and some are considered (by western minds) as riddles or unsolvable problems. Some would even consider them meaningless or a kind of ‘mental gymnastics.’ Although you may not be a Zen Buddhist practitioner it can be helpful to study a few different spiritual doctrines and methods from various traditions (not just within Buddhism). There is a kōan that I think of often and it can be helpful at various stages within the yoga practice and the greater meanings of life.
“Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”
Some teachers describe it as an answer that the Buddha gave to a student when asked what to do when they reach enlightenment or how to know when you are enlightened or have reached nirvana. Regardless of how old the statement is and whether or not it is a direct quote, a kōan or a summary of a larger teaching, it still stands as relevant today as any other period in time.
Modern ‘self-help’ advice paired with a loose spiritual framework encourages the seeker to “change things up”, “let go of what no longer serves you” or “do something new (bonus if it scares you) every day and you’ll evolve into a better version of yourself”. I like all of these sayings and they are definitely beneficial to the right ears at the right time but something also needs to be said about just getting on with it, doing what needs to be done and finding contentment in the daily activities (chores) of life.
Like anything, there can be different ways of interpreting such teachings. For some it implies a sense of community or looking out for others. Chopping the wood and carrying the water from the river or the well is essential for not only your own survival but for those around you. It teaches us not to be selfish. Without the necessity of water and heat from fire or to cook food survival is difficult. Those of you that are parents or are directly caring for others know this. Those of you that are cat people or dog people know that the food has to be in the bowl, the water topped up and poop scooped. We’ve probably all been in house at some stage where the dishes were left in the sink (for too long) or the carpet wasn’t vacuumed or the trash not taken out. Why would you need to do those things when you’ll just have to do them again tomorrow (or the next day) or the day after?
Why down dog again?! Why three deep backbends?! Can we just not do shoulderstand today?! Like in life, there are many repetitive parts to the yoga practice. Some of it is building familiarity and resilience and part of it is… just because. It is what we do. Not everything needs to be new and catchy and entertaining. My teachers were very encouraging about creativity and pursuing artistic endeavours. They also emphasised that reinventing the wheel isn’t the main job of the yoga teacher. While each yoga class is different and there are new and creative ways to teach yoga it doesn’t change the goal or the desired outcome. Enlightenment is the end result of the yoga practice and some of us may have a different interpretation of what this means and eventually looks like, but once we reach this state how will life have changed for you? You still have friends, family and loved ones to care for and there are always going to be dishes in the sink.
A big part of Buddhist teachings come from the ideas of detachment and impermanence. There is the constant desire for more and in the hope that the things we like will last forever we become committed to the never-ending cycle of chasing after sense-gratifying things – usually doing menial chores are not in this cycle. The ability to stay on the path of chopping wood and carrying water can be a reminder that even the journey towards enlightenment (or a better version of ourselves) can be a tricky ambition. What happens when we don’t reach our desired outcome after one attempt? What lengths are we willing to go through to get there? Maybe someone else is to blame or if I didn’t have to do so many chores I’d have more time for my spiritual pursuits?
Its ok to seek change and to try something new. It could be a job, where you live or how you practice yoga. The self-restraint and insight that can come from mindfulness practices can hopefully show us on a deeper level where we are simply seeking distractions, entertainment and something new – quite often to distract us from what we know needs to be done. Nobody is immune from procrastination!
Another way to interpret these teachings is to build a connection to the environment (or the natural world) that builds a confidence and satisfaction of something that is hard to describe, it has to be felt. We can make this connection through our yoga practice and an appreciation of our reliance on the Earth. Standing and balancing postures work with our balance, sense of stability and play against gravity. Twists and back bending postures are a fine balance between strength and flexibility, both working through the communication of different body parts in clear dialogue with each other. Our inversions give us a different perspective of things, when the ‘right side up’ isn’t working or we become too comfortable with one way of seeing things, can we shift our focus, turn things upside down and connect to the Earth in a different way?
The teachings of this kōan can remind us to stay grounded and sturdy like wood but also fluid and flexible as water. If we seek enlightenment, we need both of these qualities within ourselves and in our practice. Once we reach enlightenment maybe we’ll understand that fluidity and steadfastness are all that there is.
Some yoga teachings describe enlightenment as a non-event. That there was and is nothing to attain or to reach for, but as a deep state of knowing, enlightenment is the realisation of who you truly are.
So then, who am I?
Someone who chops wood and carry’s water.
– Doug Whittaker