If you have not encountered Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) before, you are in for a real treat. He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humour. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.
Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.
This is one of my favourites, translated by Derek Lin in his book, The Tao of Happiness:
The Chef Cuts the Ox
Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a man who worked as the royal chef for Duke Wen Hui. One day, the duke happened to see him cutting up an ox in preparation for dinner.
There was something about his movements that caught the duke’s attention. His hands were gentle and confident as he touched the ox and leaned against it. Even the placement of his feet and knees seemed practiced and assured. He moved in a way that reminded the duke of the Mulberry Woods dance. As he slashed his blade in and out, it is as if he were playing music, making sounds that never fell out of rhythm.
“Excellent!” the duke exclaimed. Then he asked: “How did you develop your skills to such an advanced level?”
The chef put down his knife to reply: “What I follow is the Tao that goes beyond all skills, Your Highness. When I first started doing this, I saw the ox in its totality, just like most people. After three years, I mastered this process and no longer saw the ox as an ox. Instead of using my eyes, I used my mind to perceive the animal. My physical senses would be inactive as I reached out with my feelings and directed my mind.
“Interesting.” The duke knew he had to hear more. “Go on”
The chef continued: “I follow the natural flow, letting my knife slice through its structure, moving from one large gap between its bones to the next. Its tendons and muscles come apart easily, almost without effort. An average cook goes through one knife a month, because he hacks. A good cook goes through one knife a year, because he cuts. I have used this knife for nineteen years. It has butchered thousands of oxen, but the blade is still as sharp as ever.
“What about the joints? How do you handle them?” the duke asked.
“Your Highness, the joints have openings, which are huge compared to the thinness of the blade. With precise guidance, the knife can swish right through such an opening, with room to spare. That is why my knife still works like new after nineteen years. Of course, I know that joints can be quite complex, so every time I come across them, I make use of caution by focussing my attention and slowing down my movements. Sometimes it takes only one small exact cut of the knife. The ox comes apart and may not even realise it is dead as it hits the ground.
The duke was impressed. “You certainly seem to enjoy this work,” he said to the chef.
“Yes, Your Highness.” The chef reflected: “When I am finished, I survey my handiwork knowing it was a job well done. I put away my knife and feel a profound sense of satisfaction I cannot easily express.”
“Excellent.” The duke smiled. “The words I have heard from you go beyond cutting up the ox. Today I have learned a priceless principle about living life!”
Derek Lin’s Commentary
Butchering may seem like an unlikely subject for him to teach the Tao. Why a messy job like butchering? Why not tell a story about meditation?
Chuang Tzu preferred using everyday, down-to-earth examples to explain the Tao. Butchering was one such example. It was something that everyone could understand back in his day. It was also a way to express the Tao was everywhere – not just the temple, but also in the kitchen; not just in meditation but also in mundane activities like meal preparation.
How can we live life the same way? The story offers four guidelines:
1. Maintain Your Sharpness
Many people struggle mightily against problems in life. When they try to force their way through obstacles, it is like an average cook slashing his way through an ox. They must eventually succeed, but only at great cost – their blade gets much duller.
In this context, the sharpness of the blade refers to your physical, mental, spiritual well-being. When the sharpness is blunted, your well-being suffers, and your ability to handle other problems in life diminishes.
This is why the Tao is so practical. By mastering and practicing the proven methods of the sages, you resolve problems (cut through oxen) effortlessly. You feel no exhaustion, full of energy (your blade remains sharp) and you are ready to face whatever other issues may surface.
2. Use Your Intuition
Tao sages never rely solely on their physical senses. Like the chef meeting the ox with his mind, they always look beyond the surface to discern the underlying essence. This is particularly important in life, because so often we encounter situations that are not what they seem at first. Going by the appearance, like seeing the ox with the eyes instead of the mind, will all but guarantee that we miss the hidden agenda.
Once the sages perceive the underlying essence of a situation, they follow the dictates of this essence to determine their actions and words. To them, this is a simple matter of moving along the natural path. To others, they seem to be demonstrating advanced skills.
3. Focus Your Attention
Joints represent complicated problems in life. They may be contentious situations where making one side happy will make the other side mad, and vice versa. One cannot solve something like this with a simple solution, just like a blade cannot separate a complex joint with a straight cut.
Sages deal with such problems by focusing their attention. They observe the situation from different perspectives until they see exactly where they can do the most good. Often, this is a pivotal point where the skilful application of leverage produces the greatest impact. When they finally take action, it may be something small – perhaps only a word or a gesture – but the dilemma falls apart, just like the ox.
4. Create Your Art
Chuang Tzu’s last point is that living life can be an art. Even if you do not think of yourself as an artist, a life well lived can be like a beautiful painting. If butchering can be done with artistic flair, then is there anything that cannot be done in a similar way?
There is a sense of fulfilment when you complete a work of art. It goes beyond the joy of maintaining ones physical, mental and spiritual health. When you are done, you can put away your tools with a feeling of satisfaction. Everything has worked out exactly how it should, and all is right with the world.
As the duke said, this is a priceless principle. As the royal chef demonstrated, no matter what it is you do, there is always a way to do it that is effective, effortless, and enjoyable at the deepest level. This is the true meaning of wu wei.
When your journey in life brings you in contact with another ox, bring out your blade – it should be as sharp as ever, if you have followed the teaching correctly. Regard the ox not with your eyes but with your mind. Let the Tao move your hands, but slow down where ever appropriate and vary your approach until you find the right spot.
Before long, you will become the skilful royal chef. Everyone around you will think you have advanced skills in solving the most difficult problems in life. You alone will know that it is not a skill but the Tao – which goes beyond all skills!