Chuang Tzu

Translation by Derek Lin

Carving Up an Ox

A cook was butchering an ox for Duke Wen Hui.
The places his hand touched,
His shoulder leaned against,
His foot stepped on,
His knee pressed upon,
Came apart with a sound.

He moved the blade, making a noise
That never fell out of rhythm.
It harmonized with the Mulberry Woods Dance,
Like music from ancient times.

Duke Wen Hui exclaimed: "Ah! Excellent!
Your skill has advanced to this level?"

The cook puts down the knife and answered:
"What I follow is Tao,
Which is beyond all skills.

"When I started butchering,
What I saw was nothing but the whole ox.
After three years,
I no longer saw the whole ox.

"Nowadays, I meet it with my mind
Rather than see it with my eyes.
My sensory organs are inactive
While I direct the mind's movement.

"It goes according to natural laws,
Striking apart large gaps,
Moving toward large openings,
Following its natural structure.

"Even places where tendons attach to bones
Give no resistance,
Never mind the larger bones!

"A good cook goes through a knife in a year,
Because he cuts.
An average cook goes through a knife in a month,
Because he hacks.

"I have used this knife for nineteen years.
It has butchered thousands of oxen,
But the blade is still like it's newly sharpened.

"The joints have openings,
And the knife's blade has no thickness.
Apply this lack of thickness into the openings,
And the moving blade swishes through,
With room to spare!

"That's why after nineteen years,
The blade is still like it's newly sharpened.

"Nevertheless, every time I come across joints,
I see its tricky parts,
I pay attention and use caution,
My vision concentrates,
My movement slows down.

"I move the knife very slightly,
Whump! It has already separated.
The ox doesn't even know it's dead,
and falls to the ground like mud.

"I stand holding the knife,
And look all around it.
The work gives me much satisfaction.
I clean the knife and put it away."

Duke Wen Hui said: "Excellent!
I listen to your words,
And learn a principle of life."