The Essential Chuang Tzu

I’ve started reading The Essential Chuang Tzu translated by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton. Chuang Tzu’s writings and the Taoteching are the primary sources of early Taoist teaching. I haven’t read Chuang Tzu since taking a grad level Chinese literature class many years ago, but as I read this translation I remember much of what I’ve read before, just as one remembers a classic movie seen as a child that was so insightful, so powerful that it continued to live on in our memories.

One of my favorite Chuang Tzu stories is this one, found in Chapter three:

Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-huj. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee. With a shush and a hush, the blade sang following his lead, never missing a note. Ting and his blade moved as though dancing to “The Mulberry Grove,” or is if conducting the “ching-shou” with a full orchestra.

Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”

Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. I find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye. Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form — yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone.

“A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day.

“Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until-kerplop!-meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I’m fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away.”

Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”

I’m not sure whether I remember this because I had just taken my first cooking class, mama’s Chinese cooking, and was amazed at the versatility of the Chinese cleaver or because I had always felt this way about my woodworking tools. Perhaps it reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or perhaps I liked ZAMM later because it reminded me of Chuang Tzu. When I think about it I wonder if this is the reason I love the way Ichiro treats his glove and bats. No matter.

The message seems true, no matter what the reason. True craftsmen who purse their craft with love and devotion have found The Way as surely as a monk or priest. Unfortunately, modern life makes it difficult to earn a living through fine craftsmanship, and most of us have had to find other ways of discovering The Way. Fortunately, modern life has also give those of us who are not addicted to material possessions the free time to find the Way.

3 thoughts on “The Essential Chuang Tzu

  1. “True craftsmen who pursue their craft with love and devotion have found The Way as surely as a monk or priest.”

    Thank you for posting these encouraging words today as I continue the challenging process of finding out how to continue pursuing my craft of nearly 42 years as well as find a new way to make a living here at 58 years old.

  2. I have, Rae. I started many years ago with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and read four of his longer works on the mythology of different areas of the world. I especially liked his series done with Bill Moyers. And, of course, some of the same ideas are found in Jung.

    I think I’m in tune with the idea of a Universal Religion, the underlying ideas that tie most major religions together.

What do you think?