Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cook Ding

For Véronique:

Zhuangzi (ca. 370-286 BCE) wrote:

庖丁为文惠君解牛,手之所触,肩之所倚,足之所路履,膝之所倚,砉然响然,奏刀豁然 ,莫不中音。合于桑林之舞,乃中经首之会。文惠君曰:“嘻,善哉!技盖至此乎?” 庖丁释刀对曰:“臣之所好者道也,进乎技矣。始臣之解牛之时,所见无非牛者。三年之后,未尝见全牛也。方今之时,臣以神遇而不以目视,官知止而神欲行。依 乎天理,批大郄,导大髋,因其固然。技(枝)经肯綮之未尝,而况大骨乎!良庖岁更刀,割也;族庖月更刀,折也。今臣之刀十九年矣,所解数千牛矣,而刀刃若 新发于硎。彼节者有间,而刀刃者无厚,以有閒入无厚,恢恢乎其于游刃必有余地矣,是以十九年而刀刃若新发于硎。虽然,每至于族,吾见其难为,怵然为戒,视 为止,行为迟,动刀甚微,然已解,如土委地。提刀而立,为之四顾,为之踌躇满志,善刀而藏之。” 文惠君曰:“善哉!吾闻庖丁之言,得养生焉。

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee ― zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now ― now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

"A good cook changes his knife once a year ― because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month ― because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there's plenty of room ― more than enough for the blade to play about it. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

"However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until ― flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away."

"Excellent!" said Lord Wen-hui. "I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!"

Burton Watson trans., Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964

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. If 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."

Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton trans., The Essential Chuang Tzu, 1998