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.

8 thoughts on “Match Nature to Nature”

  1. The craftsman in the story says he strives (and fasts) not to care for “congratulations or rewards.” That detachment is, apparently, essential to the purity of his craft. It’s evidently not just a matter of developing skill but of creating without seeking praise; very alien to our culture. I can think of performers who give me the impression they’re very much aware of their talent, and there’s something off-putting about that. Not saying you have that quality, but I think this is an important aspect of the message: not to add anything to the work (“my craft is all there is”) by thoughts of how others will regard the craftsman.

  2. I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing. It sounds like this craftsman is fasting to reach a point where he’s working without any awareness of his skill. He says that when he can bring that level of detachment to his work, it attains a quality people see in the natural world. Matching nature to nature is putting the same pure energy (effort that is unaware of itself (“I’ve forgotten that I have a bodily form”)) into his work that nature puts into its own.
    Interesting goal, but sounds almost impossible.

  3. I was just referring to the part where you say ” not to add anything to the work (“my craft is all there is”) by thoughts of how others will regard the craftsman.” I would call that pandering to your audience.

    But, yes, I do think much of what Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are writing about is “idealistic” rather than practical advice. But when you’re describing something like the Tao you’re probably going to be idealistic rather than pragmatic.

  4. I hope you will post photos of your carvings as you have done in the past. I like your carvings.

    Your post and the comments gave me much to think about and reminded me of a book I read in the late 1980s. It might be time for me to re-read SEEING IS FORGETTING THE NAME OF THE THING ONE SEES: A LIFE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTIST ROBERT IRWIN, by Lawrence Weschler. As with everything in my life, parts of it were problematic for me. But that’s okay. Robert Irwin was one of my art teachers in 1967 at UC Irvine. He visited Western Washington University to give a talk in the late 1980s. I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read the Tao Te Ching.

  5. I think this is one of those situations of “easy to be said than done”. 🙂 However, only because it is idealistic we should not not strive to achieve that. If we consider life as a journey and a continual process of renewing/improving ourselves, we might not get there tomorrow, but I think we can get there someday if we don’t stop trying.

  6. I’m not sure that losing all sense of self is an improvement, Sue. Being like nature isn’t necessarily the highest or best use of our nature. It strikes me that man is very different from all other things in this world.

  7. Tom, I don’t think the story demonstrates losing all sense of self for an improvement. I think the story is about emptying mind, heart so that one can find true sense of self…sometimes I believe we have to lose things to gain things…Also I don’t know if I agree that we are all that different from nature. Nature does not mean it is all the same..humans are different from other things in the world but still I think we all are part of nature which is all things as far as I am concerned.

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