Match Nature to Nature

Proving once again that it’s impossible (at least for me) to separate my experience of a work from my own self-interests, I’ve chosen a passage from The Essential Chuang T’su that reflects on my desire to get back to woodcarving now that the winter rains have descended here in the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps each of us can only see the Tao imperfectly as it relates to our own life. With that caution, here’s the final passage I’ve chosen from the book to suggest its content:

The craftsman Ch’ing carved wood into bell stands. When he was done, the people who saw his work were startled, as if they’d seen a ghost or spirit.

The Marquis of Lu saw one and asked, “What magical art did you use to make this?”

“Your servant is a craftsman,” Ch’ing replied. “What art could I have? But although that is so, I do unify around it. When I’m going to make a bell stand, I don’t let it gnaw at my ch’i. I fast to clarify my heart and mind. When I’ve fasted for three days, I no longer dare to think of congratulations or rewards. When I’ve fasted for five days, I no longer dare to think of honors or condemnation, of skill or clumsiness. After seven days of fasting, I’ve forgotten that I have four limbs and a bodily form. In that moment there is no lord and no court. My craft is all there is. There’s nothing to distract me. Then I go into the mountain grove. I look upon heavenly nature.. . the perfect form comes, and then I see the bell stand, and only then put my hand to it. If it doesn’t come it doesn’t. I just match nature to nature. That’s why people suspect the presence of a spirit.”

It would only take a quick glance to determine that I have never fasted for five days in my life, but I would say that I still aspire to Ching’s standards in my photography (I’m much further in my photography than in my woodcarving). I try to “match nature to nature.”

And, as I understand it, that is the essence of following the Taos: to see nature as it is without knowledge, to see life fresh each and every moment, instead of assuming you already know it so well that you no longer have to see it for what it is.

The Machine Age

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Hamill’s The Essential Chuang T’zu and am having a hard time deciding how to accurately convey the essence of the work. In a novel I could discuss some of the themes using short passages; in a book of poetry, it’s easy to quote a few poems that are representative of the poet’s theme and writing style.

I’m not about to quote five or pages pages, though, and if I simply quoted a few lines it might well sound like the Taoteching. So, I’ve resorted to quoting some of the shorter tales in their entirety, even though those don’t always seem as meaningful to me as the longer sections.

Keeping that in mind, this is a tale that seems like it must have been written for modern men who type their response on machines they neither understand nor control:

[From Chapter 12]

TZU-KUNG WENT SOUTH TO CH’U, AND, RETURNING BY way of the state of Chin, he was passing along the south shore of the Han River when he saw a big fellow working in a one-acre held of vegetables. He was climbing down into a pit well with a pitcher, then climbing out and pouring the water on his crop. It looked like he was working himself to the bone without getting much advantage from his efforts.

“There’s a mechanism for this,” Tzu-kung said, “and with it, in a single day you could inundate a hundred acres. It doesn’t take Mach effort, and it yields a great advantage. Wouldn’t you like to have one?”

The gardener rose up and gave him a look. “How’s it work?”

“It’s a machine constructed of wood, heavy at one end, light at the other. It lifts the water like a dipper, lots of it, so much that it gushes out as if it were boiling over. It’s called a well sweep.”

The gardener made an ugly face, then said with a laugh, “I’ve heard my teacher say, ‘Where there are machines, there will be machine problems; where there are machine problems, the mechanical will find entry into the hearts and minds of the people; when people’s hearts and minds become mechanical, what’s pure and simple is spoiled. Without the pure and simple, the spirit knows no rest. And when the spirit knows no rest, even the Tao can’t carry you on.’ It’s not that I don’t know about your machine, but that I’d be ashamed to use such a thing.”

I’m glad I don’t have to draw my water from a well or three miles away from the nearest creek, but I suspect that many of modern man’s problems do stem from the overuse of machines. Some seem to think that our machines have allowed us to transcend Nature, but I’m not one of them.

We’ve traded the stress of scratching out a subsistence from the land for the stress of trying to keep up with the machines we’ve created.

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.