The famed cook Ting was carving an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As he did, his hands fluttered like birds, his feet stamped, his knees bent, his shoulders rolled, and the tip of his knife knitted into the meat as if he were writing calligraphy. Slice! Slash! Fwshhh! Ting moved gracefully as though keeping time to the music of the Mulberry Forest Dance or an orchestral rendition of the Ching-shou.
From his position at the entrance to the kitchen, Lord Wen-hui watched this production with eyes wide like a child’s. “This is a marvel!” he said. “Your skill, Cook Ting, has reached such a degree that it has become something else entirely. A song perhaps. Or a beautiful story. Or someone with whom any man or woman would fall in love!”
Cook Ting, who had not noticed Lord Wen-hui when he had first come into the room, now perceived him. He lay down his knife, turned, bowed, and said, “Many thanks for your kind words, Lord.”
“How did you acquire such a high level of skill?” Lord Wen-hui asked.
Cook Ting wiped his hands on his apron and lowered his gaze. “When I work, I don’t try to carve the ox or hone my skill. I think about nothing and so follow the Way. It was not always so. When I first began butchering oxen, all I could see in front of me was the piece of meat I wanted to hack away from the ox’s body. I was like a clumsy and unsuccessful lover.
After three years, I became aware though that the piece of meat is embedded in the larger ox. Connected here and connected there, the flesh, the bones, the tendons, the joints, the blood itself – all of these follow the same organizing principles. Now that I am older, I know as well that the ox exists in the same cosmos as I, and that these principles extend to me too. Knowing this so deeply that I do not need to think about it, my spirit moves instinctively in accord with the ox, as a fallen leaf doesn’t think about the current of the river yet moves with it. In this way, I am able to guide my knife into the discovery of hollows, cut with the grain of the meat and the curve of bone, to split with a seam and not create cracks, thus leaving unmolested the ligaments, joints, and tendons and unscarred the bone.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year – because he chops carelessly. An average cook changes it once a month because he hacks haphazardly. I’ve had this knife for nineteen years which is a sum equal to several thousand oxen. Yet the blade is sharp enough to shave a man. This is so because I don’t cut with the knife. I cut with the ox. At its joints are spaces into which you can place a knife which has no thickness. There is then plenty of room – enough for a blade’s edge to finish planting season.
Of course, sometimes there is resistance and my blade enters a complicated place. At such a time, I pause, look more closely with my eyes and feel with my fingers, until I sense how the universal principles have shaped themselves in this instance. Then I work my blade slowly, falling into resonance with the ox, falling into principle with all oxen and with the cosmos itself, moving my blade, moving myself, allowing the ox to move both of us and then fwwwooop! There! The beast has come apart like a clod of earth crumbles to the ground. Sometimes, a single word at the right moment can affect a man, for good or ill, in a similar way.
The flower of the ox now open, I stand back and assess it until I am satisfied it has fully bloomed. Then I clean my knife diligently and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “What a miraculous day! I asked Cook Ting to explain to me his technique for butchering oxen, and now I walk away from him understanding how to nurture life.”