Prince Hui’s cook was cutting up an ox. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every step of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh (sound) of the ox’s torn flesh, every chkk (sound) of the chopper, was in perfect harmony – in rhythm like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, simultaneous like the chords of the Ching Shou. “Well done!” cried the Prince.
“How did you ever achieve such skill?”
“Sire,” replied the cook, “I have always devoted myself to the Tao. It is better than skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, I saw before me simply whole oxen. After three years of practice, I saw no more whole animals. And now I work with my mind and not with my eye. When my senses bid me stop, but my mind urges me on, I fall back upon eternal principles. I follow such openings or cavities as there may be, according to the animal’s natural physique. I do not attempt to cut through the veins, arteries, and tendons, still less through large bones.”
“A good cook changes his chopper once a year – because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month – because he hacks. But I have had this chopper 19 years, and although I have cut up many thousand oxen, its edge is as if fresh from the grindstone. For at the joints there are always crevices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such a crevice. By these means the crevice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room. It is thus that I have kept my chopper for nineteen years as though fresh from the grindstone.”
“Nevertheless, when I come upon a hard part where the blade meets with a difficult section, I proceed with caution. I fix my gaze and go slowly, gently applying my blade, until with a Hwah! the part yields like earth crumbling to the ground. Then I take out my chopper, and stand up, and look around, and pause, until with an air of triumph I wipe my chopper and put it carefully away.”
“Bravo!” cried the Prince. “From the words of this cook I have learnt how to take care of my life.”
By Carolyn Stearns