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'Chop Wood' Blazes a Zen Path for a Material World

May 19, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

. . . the boy with the cold hard

cash is always Mr. Right,

'cause we are living in a material


and I am a material girl . . . .

--"Material Girl,"

performed by Madonna.

Does pop star Madonna worry that all that cash might compromise her spiritual development? Do the yuppies who adore her yearn for more than mere mastery of the material world?

Rick Fields suggests in his new book, "Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life" (Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc.: $11.95), that successful young people may indeed want to devote some time to striving for spiritual security.

"The yuppies have half of it taken care of (economic matters). And everyone knows we all have to take care of business in the '80s," said Fields, who lives in Boulder, Colo., where he edits a Buddhist newsletter. "But the perennial age-old problems of humans--birth, old age, sickness and death--are always going to be with us. Having a BMW and a face lift is not going to change that.

"In Buddhism we talk about the richness of the material world--cars, friends, sunsets. To enjoy it is good; to use it because you're afraid to look at yourself is not so good."

With its title taken from a Chinese Zen poem, the book (co-authored with Peggy Taylor, Rex Weyler and Dr. Rex Ingrasci) advises busy professionals how to glean higher meaning from worldly tasks such as "working in an office or working out at a gym, balancing a checkbook or a relationship," as Fields puts it in the introduction.

A restaurant on Sunset Boulevard proved an ideal setting for observing the quintessential '80s types whom "Chop Wood" addresses. On a recent morning, the author appeared to be cast from the same stuff as the men and women rushing by on their way to deal-making breakfasts.

Fields, 42, admitted that he loves sushi and VCRs. He wears handsome suits for interviews and his hair is the early gray often associated with ambition. You won't find him in robes, amulets or esoteric adornments. He's the sort of guide money-minded people might readily trust.

While he retains a certain "bemusement" at the convoluted ways people go about the search, he said he is "sympathetic to the impulses of people to look for meaning--all those things that have traditionally been the area of religion. In our society, there's often no place for those impulses to go. But everyone who spends five minutes alone at one point or another is somewhat in touch with the spiritual life and can find something in this book."

In the '60s, when pursuit of enlightenment was more fashionable than it is today, seekers tended to withdraw from worldly duties, devoting themselves totally to the inner journey, Fields said. Twenty years later, those former pilgrims haven't the vacation time or the inclination to check out of the corporate office and into a monastery. Even if they did, such pursuits are nowadays considered by some to be self-centered, Fields said.

"Those people (the '60s seekers) have dropped the spiritual quest as an exotic and colorful period of their youth," Fields said. "Now they are finally getting responsible, paying attention to the real world. But the challenge seems to be to integrate these things (spiritual and practical pursuits)."

'Help Other People'

The quest, he added, need not be narcissistic: "The whole point of a spiritual path is to help other people. You work on yourself in order to help others."

The authors didn't want to set themselves up as teachers or gurus, said Fields, whose last book was "How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America." He said they approached the writing of the book as "people on a spiritual path who have made some interesting mistakes ourselves."

The authors sought the input of their wisest peers. For instance, Fields said that poet Gary Snyder, his friend, was the perfect person to quiz about work, because the man is fanatic about physical labor.

"If you visit him in his home in the Sierra and don't put a tool back in the right place, it's almost a sin," Fields said. Snyder steered Fields to the "Bean Patch" chapter of Thoreau's "Walden," excerpts from which appear in the book. (The authors divided up modern life into areas covered by chapters on work, money, play, healing, technology, social action, sex, family and others.)

"Manual labor, called samu in Zen, is part of the life of every Zen monk," the authors write in the chapter on work. "Every day after breakfast a time is set aside for sweeping, dusting, polishing the floor, scrubbing the toilets, weeding and gardening." A reader might then deduce that taking the Rabbit convertible in for servicing could also be regarded as a sort of moving meditation.

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