Cutting Up An Ox

(from “The Way of Chuang Tzu”, translation of the classic taoist, by Thomas Merton, a book that has followed me most of my life.)

Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
“After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
Apprehends.
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening,
The hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“A great cook needs a new chopper
Once a year – he cuts.
A poor cook needs a new one
Every month – he hacks!

“I have used this same cleaver
Nineteen years.
It has cut up
A thousand oxen.
Its edge is as keen
As if newly sharpened.
“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver
Nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”

Prince Wen Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!”

– Zhuangzi (translated by Thomas Merton)