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 tile Ching-shou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Yen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such
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 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 it. That’s why after
nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from
The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu
Translated by Burton Watson