For the student of Zen, the world provides a multitude of teachers. From rooted, resilient trees we can learn the posture of meditation. From the birds we can learn directness of response. And from other people, particularly those whose trades have taught them to live in the present, we can learn a fundamental principle of Zen practice.
Thirty-five years ago, my first wife and I were living in a rundown farmhouse on Elm Valley Road. Asphalt-shingled and lacking insulation, our house was drafty and expensive to heat. To make ends meet, we installed three woodstoves, which we fed with maple, beech, and ash throughout the winter. Most of the firewood came from our woodlot across the road. I bought a 14” Homelite chainsaw at Carter Hardware, and though I’d had no experience with such a machine, I learned how to use it.
Or at least I thought I did, until I met Howard “Chainsaw” Chilson, my neighbor from down the road. Driving his little Ford tractor past our house, as he often did, Howard spotted me cutting wood and stopped to help, offering some pointers along the way. He showed me how to adjust the chain and how to trim branches without jamming the bar. Most important, he exhorted me to pay attention—full attention—to whatever I was doing. Although I did not quite realize it at the time, my eyes, limbs, and indeed my life depended on it.
Howard had served as an MP in the Second World War. A rugged, lanky man with a bone-crushing handshake, he proudly claimed to be “one-quarter Indian”—Cherokee, as I recall. His own chainsaw was a green, 20” Poulan, which looked as weathered as its owner. But in Howard’s hands it might have been a scalpel, so prodigious was his skill.
Howard’s prized tool had also earned him his name. As he told the story, he was refused service at a local bar, having come in drunk. Disappointed with this lack of courtesy, Howard went out to his truck and returned with his chainsaw. “Either serve me,” he bellowed, “or I’ll cut your bar down!”. Although he did not make good on his threat, he was known ever after as Chainsaw Chilson.
Howard could be moody, but he was an amiable companion, and we spent many productive hours in the woods, cutting and hauling enough wood to heat two houses. Although he’d had little formal education, Howard had a woodsman’s expertise, which he generously shared, and a keen observant eye, which he often turned in my direction. In three summers of working together we never had an accident or sustained even a minor injury, thanks mainly to Howard’s vigilance. Although he called me “Boss,” it was he who kept us both from harm. And though he chided me for wearing something so unmanly as ear protectors (“ear muffs,”he called them), he provided protection of his own, bringing my sometimes wandering mind back to the work at hand.
That is exactly what a good Zen teacher does, and though Chainsaw Chilson, who passed away in 1991, had probably never heard of Zen meditation, he had something in common with the long lineage of Zen teachers. “Will you please write some maxims of the highest wisdom?” a man asked Ikkyu, a fifteenth-century Zen master. “Attention, attention, attention!” Ikkyu wrote. And in a well-known poem, Layman P’ang, a C’han master of the eighth century, trains his own attention on ordinary labor. “Who cares about wealth and honor?” he writes, “Even the poorest thing shines. / My miraculous power and spiritual activity: / drawing water and carrying wood.”
February 26, 2009
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