Carving Up an Ox

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James Louder

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Carving up an Ox

 Chuang Tsu

(Fourth century B.C.E.  Translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English)


Prince Wen Hui's cook was carving up an ox.  Every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every step of his foot, every thrust of his knee with the slicing and parting of the flesh and the zinging of the knife - all was in perfect rhythm, just like the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or a part in the Ching Shou symphony.

Prince Wen Hui remarked, "How wonderfully you have mastered your art."

The cook laid down his knife and said, "What your servant really cares for is Tao, which goes beyond mere art.  When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen.  After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole.  I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes.  My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over.  I follow the natural grain, letting the knife find its way through the many hidden openings, taking advantage of what is there, never touching a ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

" A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks.  I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone.  There are spaces between the joints.  The blade of the knife has no thickness.  That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass through these spaces.  Therefore, after nineteen years, my blade is as sharp as ever.  However, when I come to a difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, keep my eyes on what I am doing, and work slowly.  Then with a very slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open.  It falls apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.  I stand there with the knife in my hand, looking about me with a feeling of accomplishment and delight.  Then I wipe the knife clean and put it away."

"Well done!" said the Prince. "From the words of my cook, I have learned the secret of growth."





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