"Ting the Cook" from the Zhuangzi


If all the Chinese poets, painters, and writers who ever lived were queried and asked to name just one book of their favorite reading, the nomination would certainly go to the writings of Master Chuang.

— Irving Yucheng Lo, Foreword to The Essential Chuang-Tzu.

The Zhuangzi, also romanized as the Chuang-Tzu, is a Taoist classic from around the 4th century BCE. Thousands of years later, it remains as timeless, vibrant, and whimsical as ever.

Here is a favorite passage of mine from the beginning of chapter 3 of The Essential Chuang-Tzu, translated by Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton. Emphasis mine:

Life has a limit; knowledge has none. To seek what is limitless through what is limited is perilous. It is even more perilous to pursue knowledge with full knowledge of this fact. Those who would do good should avoid fame just as those who do evil would avoid punishment. Make staying close to main arteries a constant rule. Doing so, you may remain whole, rear a family, and live out all your days.

Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. 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 as 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."

What comment could I add to this beautiful thing? But this is a blog, so I'll say just a little.

  • I've mentioned the basic fundamental of living in reality, which seems to cut across all cultures. Here we see it again in the life of an ancient Chinese butcher.

  • "It is even more perilous to pursue knowledge with full knowledge of this fact" — the translators mention in their introduction that the text has a playful and self-aware quality, which shows here.

  • I love the phrasing of "staying close to main arteries," evoking the warm pulse of blood and life (though I wonder what the original Chinese is). Even so, I think there is a balance between healthy ambition and staying rooted to your community.

  • True perception is difficult. Note how long it takes for the butcher to unlearn his conceptual schemas: first the meat, then the ox, then the entire being as one.

    Untrained adults who try to draw often revert to their conceptual schemas — a square for a house, a triangle for a roof — and must relearn how to see and engage with what is in front of them. Meditators with enough experience will notice that the boring sensations of the breath can become astonishingly beautiful and rich once they can be fully perceived.

  • I initially thought that the phrase "carving reality at the joints" came from this or a similar text. But it turns out the origin is Plato instead. (This phrase's modern use specifically refers to scientific taxonomies.)

  • "[N]ot touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone" — good advice when dealing with legacy code!