In the question "A question regarding the level of worldly participation for a buddhist monk", Bhante gave an answer containing a Zen quote.

The quote is;

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

  • What is the origin of the quote?
  • What is the meaning of the quote?

Thank you for your time.

  • 3
    I'm no expert in Zen, but above quote reminds me of something from Ajahn Chah, "when i told people that there is nothing at Nibbana, people start to have second thought." If i have to guess, the owner of the quote tries to relate Sunyata (emptiness, void) to enlightment.
    – user5056
    Jul 19, 2016 at 17:57
  • Related question: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/9375/…
    – user2341
    Apr 22, 2017 at 13:17
  • It means that enlightenment is not about changing your external circumstances in the world, but instead your mind
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 7, 2023 at 17:49

10 Answers 10


Before Enlightenment, you hate your life. You chop wood and carry water, but secretly wish to get out of it all. You bear with these activities through habit and out of hopelessness, but you really wish you could do something else. In a way, you are a victim, a slave - the wood chops you and the water carries you, and there is no way to escape. This could go for eternity, it is like living in eternal hell.

After Enlightenment, you are in harmony with the universe. You realized emptiness of it all, so you see that there is nothing more important than chopping wood and carrying water. All activities are equalized, there is no preference, no discrimination. Because there is no "you", no ego, no personality, no being, no separate individuality - there is no conflict. No need to escape. No other bank to be reached, no Nirvana to seek. But also, because you have mastered your mind, you are not chopped by the wood and carried by the water anymore. You can flip your perspective at will. It is your choice to chop wood and carry water, and you live it in complete suchness and spontaneity. You are beyond the beyond. And even beyond "beyond the beyond".

Another user proposed a slightly more cynical version:

After Enlightenment, you are no more in harmony with the universe than you were before, but you try to remind yourself through your ongoing Hell on earth that for one shining, brilliant moment, you realized the emptiness of it all, so sometimes now you see that there is nothing more important than chopping wood and carrying water. All activities are equalized, there is no preference, no discrimination. Because there is no "you", no ego, no personality, no being, no separate individuality - there is no conflict. No need to escape. No other bank to be reached, no Nirvana to seek. You have not mastered your mind, and you are a fool to think you have but you know that you don't have to be chopped by the wood and carried by the water anymore. You probably can't flip your perspective at will, it takes monks, shamans and yogis lifetimes to reach that level, but at least now you know that it is your choice to chop wood and carry water. Your feelings don't change, the world doesn't change. You still feel the same conflicts and oppositions, but now you have learned that you can choose how you react to those things, and that is the only control any of us have.

  • 1
    "Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha"
    – user2341
    Apr 2, 2018 at 23:38
  • 1
    I can relate to the non-cynical and cynical version, but I think the cynical version implies that there can be no enlightenment with pain. To me enlightenment in the buddhist sense doesn't imply that you're not subject to the normal ebbs and flows of life, it just means that you have the ability to enjoy life for it's own sake, and appreciate the present moment regardless of circumstance.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Apr 18, 2019 at 22:37

I am not sure about the origin of this quote but possibly as it used as a Zen message it may have come from Bodhidharma. I am sure about its meaning however. It relates both to Enlightenment and Mindfulness. The true practice of mindfulness which means watching the mind to find the Essence of the Mind will lead to Wisdom and Enlightenment. In simple terms we can say that before I developed the true nature of Wisdom I could chop wood and carry water but my mind was everywhere-it was heavily polluted with mental obstructions and worldly thoughts-it was not present. After I found the Essence of my Mind and found true Wisdom then I experience Enlightenment. To the external eye nothing is different-I still appear to chop wood and carry water but in fact within the internal eye everything is different. Everything has changed. It teaches us to be aware of the transience of visual forms. Nothing is what it appears to be and No thing is what it appears to be.



It means your liabilities are before and after the enlightenment the same ones. You have to live a life, to meet responsibility and to master challenges. You still have to follow the Path.


I found on http://www.dharmanet.org/ a source quoting Wu Li as a source:

Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
Wu Li

See here for details.

And this Site:


Dùnwù zhī qián kǎnchái tiāo shuǐ,
Dùnwù zhī hòu kǎnchái tiāo shuǐ.
–Wú Lì

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water;
After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
–Wu Li

Note: Enlightenment does not relieve one of the details of daily life.

I have no unequivocal spring identified, so, a similar quotation was possibly modified for the western Zen.

  • Thanks for finding source. 💖 Amazing how often quotes go unattributed. Sep 19, 2022 at 14:28

"Chop wood and carry water" This was first told to me as a story. Here is an abbreviated version.

A young boy became a monk. He dreamed of enlightenment and of learning great things. When he got to the monastery he was told that each morning he had to chop wood for the monks fires and then carry water up to the monastery for ablutions and the kitchen. He attended prayers and meditation, but the teaching he was given was rather sparse.

One day he was told to take some tea to the Abbot in his chambers. He did so and the Abbot saw he looked sad and asked him why.

He replied every day all I do is chop wood and carry water. I want to learn. I want to understand things. I want to be great one day, like you.

The Abbot gestured to the scrolls on shelves lining the walls. He said, "When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is,'chopping wood and carrying water.' and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same."


I understand the quote differently: The young monk was pursuing something, which is an attachment, seeking great knowledge, and perhaps in that, fame as well. I think his dissatisfaction indicates that "seeking enlightenment" was perhaps not yet his true purpose. I understand "Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water" is a message to teach humility.

  • 1
    Interesting to read a different view on it. Thanks.
    – user2424
    Mar 30, 2018 at 2:41

Well, I think they left out the middle part. Quote from this page:

"Before I studied Zen," goes a famous Zen saying, "I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I had studied Zen for thirty years I no longer saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. But now that I have finally mastered Zen, I once again see mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers."

The author of that saying is the poet and Ch’an master Ch’ing Yuan, who lived in the eighth century CE.

I think the point is to say that 1) the experience of becoming enlightened is not the point, and need not be explained, 2) afterwards, you are outwardly the same, 3) inwardly, you are just as alone, inexplicable and inscrutable to everyone as ever, still responsible only for yourself. Seeing that everything changes and nothing changes is the point - there is in fact, no point. That's the point.

  • point means 'advantage' or 'purpose', i think it could be better phrased as the point is that there is no point rather than there's "no point. That's the point"... after enlightenment we still chop wood: we get that it has no purpose, it's not that getting that has no purpose.
    – user2512
    Jan 13, 2019 at 1:55

Isn't it a koan? I'm not sure if koans have definite answers. It probably means something like "there's no material status change after enlightenment. Enlightenment makes one ordinary". One with wrong view might think that if you win Nirvana you get a crown, a Ferrari and you never have to keep warm or drink water again. So if a Zen master ever heard a student talk like this they could say,

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


It relates to the essential Mahayana teaching Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra refer to. Teaching about the nature of signs and conceptual appearances coming from mind and eventually, transcending the dualistic nature of mind.

There are signs, but sings are not signs, therefore they are signs. It is the essence of Diamond sutra. Enlightened being continues to do the same activities in after Enlightenment - but the perception of reality is drastically different. Since Zen is all about Yogacara, elaboration of that is conveyed in Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma sutras that are essential parts of this school.

Famous saying in this context is:

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

As yous see there are three phases of conception (turnings). The only difference is that this original saying you posted, omits the intermediary part where one "doesn't chop the wood, and carry water".

The last step, nonetheless, is realising Three Natures of all things:

  • Parikalpita (conceptual)
  • Paratantra (dependent)
  • Pariniṣpanna (absolute)

Where only the last two are the ones established as ultimate phenomena.


This quote means- Before enlightenment you use to chop wood n carry water. Now an enlightened soul will also continue to do the same chores, coz enlightenment doesn't have to do anything with the activities of living.. it is totally about the way life happens to a soul once enlightened.. it's a state of living..


Firstly, Zen is not ashamed that monks and priests integrate daily life into practice in the form of work.

Secondly, the original quote is from Layman Pang; from Wikipedia: "Layman Pang (Chinese 龐居士 Páng Jūshì; Japanese Hōkoji) (740–808) was a celebrated lay Buddhist in the Chinese Chán (Zen) tradition. Much like Vimalakīrti, Layman Pang is considered to exemplify the potential for non-monastic Buddhist followers to live an exemplary life and to be fully awakened."

"It was sometime during this period that Shitou asked Pang what he had been doing lately, and Pang responded with a verse whose last two lines are well known in Chinese Buddhist literature:

How miraculous and wondrous, Hauling water and carrying firewood![3]"

Thirdly: Wu Li's cryptic "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water." only means the same thing as "When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing." and "Do not permit the events of your daily life to bind you, but never withdraw yourself from them." "There is nothing infinite apart from finite things." - Wu-Men (another Zen Master). Wikipedia: "Wumen Huikai (simplified Chinese: 无门慧开; traditional Chinese: 無門慧開; pinyin: Wúmén Huìkāi; Wade-Giles: Wu-men Hui-k'ai; Japanese: Mumon Ekai) (1183–1260) was a Chinese Chán (Japanese: Zen) master during China´s Song period. He is most famous for having compiled and commentated the 48-koan collection The Gateless Barrier (Japanese: Mumonkan).[1]"

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