Cook Ding Cuts Up an Ox

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In the story of “Cook Ding Cuts Up an Ox”, from the “Secrets for Nurturing Life” chapter, Zhuangzi famously uses the image of a skilled butcher to illustrate the “mindlessness” characteristic of one who has mastered Daoist principles by completely following nature.

庖丁為文惠君解牛,手之所觸,肩之所倚,足之所履,膝之所踦,砉然嚮然,奏刀騞然,莫不中音。合於桑林之舞,乃中經首之會。

Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. 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 Jingshou Music.

文惠君曰:譆,善哉,技蓋至此乎。

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

庖丁釋刀對曰:臣之所好者道也,進乎技矣。始臣之解牛之時,所見无非牛者。三年之後,未嘗見全牛也。方今之時,臣以神遇,而不以目視,官知止而神欲行。依乎天理,批大郤,導大窾,因其固然。技經肯綮之未嘗,而況大軱乎。

Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], 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.”

良庖歲更刀,割也;族庖月更刀,折也。今臣之刀十九年矣,所解數千牛矣,而刀刃若新發於硎。彼節者有間,而刀刃者无厚,以无厚入有間,恢恢乎其於遊刃必有餘地矣,是以十九年而刀刃若新發於硎。

“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 grindstone.”

雖然,每至於族,吾見其難為,怵然為戒,視為止,行為遲。動刀甚微,謋然已解,如土委地。提刀而立,為之四顧,為之躊躇滿志,善刀而藏之。

“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.”

文惠君曰:善哉。吾聞庖丁之言,得養生焉。

“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”

— Zhuangzi, chapter 3(Watson translation)

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