Ancient ease: The story of Cook Ting

Hi, everybody. Today I wanted to share with you a passage from a book written a long time ago. The Zhuangzi (also tranliterated as Chuangtzu) is one of the classics of Taoism. The book is named for its purported author, although the historical records are sketchy, so it is difficult to ascertain whether an individual author actually existed. It is believed that a version of the book similar to the version we have today was already circulating in China by around 200 B.C., which makes the ideas contemporaneous with those of Confucianism, Legalism, and other schools of Taoism.

Through paradoxical anecdote, non sequiturs, humor, nonsense, and “pseudological discussion or debate that starts out sounding completely rational and sober, and ends by reducing language to a gibbering inanity” (Introduction, p. 5), the Zhuangzi wanderingly guides its reader to use skepticism and mystical detachment to escape the despair born of weakness and strife. Having appeared in China’s bloody Warring States period, the ideas in this book combined with other trends of Chinese thought to help people get by.

Although we live in a time of strife and angst, I don’t recommend anyone adopt the philosophy of the Zhuangzi wholesale: there are more engaging and hopeful avenues of moving forward that are available to us today. The story I’ve quoted below, however, I enjoy for its metaphor for how skill and awareness can make the activities of life flow more easily.

I also enjoy the story’s relevance to aikido practice: the art flows easily and smoothly for an expert practitioner, to whom tiny openings seem wide, to whom the subtle structures seem obvious. Troy Farrow’s teaching emphases reminded me of this story, so I post the story of Cook Ting as a note of thanks.

This translation comes from the honorable Burton Watson’s Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (1964, Columbia University Press). If you’re interested in learning about the Zhuangzi, I recommend you go right to this book, with its fine introductory information.

The story of Cook Ting, quoted from the Zhuangzi

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At 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 follow 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 in. 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!” (pp. 46-47)

PILGRIM FLASK (BIAN HU) Ca. 3rd century B.C.E. Eastern Zhou dynasty, China. Warring States period. Bronze inlaid with silver H: 31.3 W: 30.5 D: 11.7 cm. Photo by Xuan Che
PILGRIM FLASK (BIAN HU) Ca. 3rd century B.C.E. Eastern Zhou dynasty, China. Warring States period. Bronze inlaid with silver H: 31.3 W: 30.5 D: 11.7 cm. Photo by Xuan Che. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

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