The Master

To my joy this morning, I encountered a new interpretation of Without a Net card number 17, titled “And That Fresh Blood.” The painting’s original inspiration is featured in another blog post. To sum up, I wanted to capture my relationship to anger. My take on it today was totally different.

The clean and dignified presentation of the badger reminded me of a poem by the Taoist poet of 2500 years ago, Chuang Tzu. I own a translation of his poems by 20thcentury monk Thomas Merton, but hadn’t read it in years. 

In it, a meat cutter is presented as a sort of spiritual master in his approach to his craft. It may look a bit long here, but it reads quickly, I promise.

Cutting Up an Ox

Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand, 
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance, Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!


“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
“After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.


“But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
Apprehends.
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.


“A good cook needs a new chopper
Once a year—he cuts.
A poor cook needs a new one
Every month—he hacks!


“I have used this same cleaver 
Nineteen years.
It has cut up 
A thousand oxen.
Its clean edge is as keen
As if newly sharpened. 


“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!


“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! The part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.


“The I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work 
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”


Prince Wan Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me 
How I ought to live 
My own life!”

The badger in the card seems to emanate the qualities of the prince’s cook. He is a master at the craft of enlightened living, as represented through one of the least likely symbols of lofty human activities. 

The fact that he’s a meat cutter communicates that our connection to the divine (or the universe, whatever is comfortable) can be found in our daily chores or a butcher shop as easily as the church or the yoga mat. 

The cook’s description of unskilled work tells us that forcing our will or mind on a problem will only dull our abilities and wear us out. His reliance on total awareness in the moment guides him by intuition and trust. I see this lesson in my classes.

I am constantly telling my painting students to stop thinking and figuring. Even total beginners can work somewhat effortlessly when they let go of trying to understand or control outcomes. Many want to rely on the usual means of grasping how it will work, as opposed to succumbing to the fact that it just will. They may not know it but they’re being asked to hand over control of the brush to the capable hands of the Master painter.

The overall theme of the poem and card reminded me of the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (say that name three times fast, or even once ever.) He wrote an exhaustive book about his concept of flow. In my words, flow is a blissful state of freedom encountered when one is participating in an activity that strikes a balance between effort and ease, is challenging in a way that stretches the capacities, and is leading toward a purposeful goal. It is Grace in action. The prince’s cook has got it going on, and so does the badger butcher, if interpreted that way.

Notice how the poem includes the reminders that his attainments didn’t happen overnight. It took him time to learn and sense his way to effortless effort. It also mentions that challenges present themselves. I do well to keep in mind that gifted and proficient practitioners don’t get that way by snapping their fingers. 

Describing what it’s like to be in the state of flow may not be easy, but Chuang Tzu’s comparison to music and dancing are appropriately exuberant and poetic, and the exclamation points help!

I find tremendous inspiration in those who perform their job or sport or art with extraordinary grace. You see the gratitude they have for their work, the grounded assuredness that comes from deeply knowing and loving their path. Even difficulties are considered a predictable and welcome part of the pursuit, for they lead to more expansion. These virtuosos are why I keep to the path.

Although I did relate to the card’s implication that the badger is a master of something particular, I was much more interested in what that points to: a mastery of connecting to consciousness, to the bliss and freedom potentially available in anything we do.

Card number 17 made me appreciative that I get to experience flow regularly, and that there are plenty of Masters out there—in many shapes and forms—to help me keep learning. It also reminded me to keep in touch as often as possible with the Source of sharpness. And flow. And music.