“Chop Wood. Carry Water.” Holy Envy, Zen, and a Spirituality of Work

carry wood

The Swedish theologian, Krister Stendahl, famously spoke of “Holy Envy” as that virtue of remaining open to aspects we find in religious traditions other than our own in order to admire them and incorporate into our own tradition. For quite some time, I have been envious of the Zen element of striving for and finding bliss in work and being – simply being.

A well-known Zen story depicts a disciple asking the master, “What is enlightenment?” to which the master responds, “I chop wood. I carry water. What joy! What bliss!”  There is bliss to be found in work, in rigor, and in exhausting the body in the routine tasks that fill our lives; the bliss is to be found in simply being.

The world’s religious traditions offer no shortage of spiritual practices. Spirituality, as I understand the term, refers to the lived religious experience of a particular person in the world. This can entail a great number of diverse practices (e.g., stillness, mediation, prayer, devotion, contemplation, fasting, etc.). With this broad understanding of the term, we can place ourselves in a position to be envious of many spiritual practices other than those provided by our own traditions (and in a manner that hopefully does not scandalize our own tradition). The Zen element of finding bliss, or enlightenment (satori), by engaging the world without attachment and seemingly turning the mind off can teach the non-Buddhist (in my case, the person striving to live in the way of Jesus as a Christian) a thing or two.

This spirituality of work reminds the Christian that her tradition affirms the goodness of the world and all things therein. The Ignatian tradition teaches that God is to be found in all things, but this can be lost in the broader Christian tradition. Christianity is sometimes perceived as overemphasizing the finding of God in the non-corporal while shunning the raw earthiness of the body and world.

Go chop wood, go carry water. Stop looking so hard for the transcendent. It does not need to be tortured out of experience or out of the world, but rather (as Zen helps us to see) God is there in the simple mundane everyday-ness of our bodily lives.

Most mornings I have the privilege of running along the Mississippi river which separates parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I find this time to be one of the most spiritual parts of my day, not because of the beauty of the river and its banks (although that certainly doesn’t hurt) but rather because of the practice of taxing my body (my spirituality of work). This task could be achieved by any strenuous exercise or work regardless of location. I find that running (work) turns off the mind by turning on the body. It centers me, attunes me, places me into the rhythm of the world, and as a result my mind is better able to accomplish the tasks that lie ahead. There is a certain addiction in this. If I miss a morning run or go some time without physical exercise, my mind, I find, in not as sharp. I envy this emphasis we find in Zen to immerse in the world (but with some detachment) in order to see the world. By engaging the world and the body through work, we might be able to stop and see the world in an ordinary way yet without craving and attachment. As the “Flower Sermon” teaches, simply see the flower for what it is, no more and no less.

I had a memorable experience of this when I was once sitting still at 30,000 feet on an Alaska Airlines flight high over the Tongass National Forest[1] in Southeast Alaska. I recall looking down on the vast forest and enjoying it immensely, even though I wasn’t “in” the forest.  Like the disciple in the Flower Sermon, I enjoyed the forest for what it was. I remember thinking there is “nothing” down there, by which I meant “no people.” Even though I had spent countless days living and moving about in the Tongass, it was when I was high above and removed from it that I appreciated it without attachment. Obstacles were removed. I had no desire to go down there and explore (like I usually did), but took joyful bliss in simply seeing it there for what it is: pure powerful forest, sea, mountains, and animals. There it was. I experienced momentary bliss in simply recognizing its presence in all its ordinariness.

photo courtesy of AVForums.com


     [1] At 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States and is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world.
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