The piece below for Dark Mountain Issue 8 Technê was my first essay published in a book, or indeed anywhere other than on the T'ai Chi school blog which I started in 2005. Thankfully, it was edited down by Steve Wheeler from a rambling sprawl to this short essay, where I attempt to get to some of the deeper aspects of Chuang Tzu's wonderful teaching story. I have updated it very slightly for you today. I recommend getting Thomas Cleary's Taoist Classics Volume 1 for his masterful translations, but other renditions of the story are available to read immediately online if you search 'Cook Ting'. Warmest greetings to you from the train home through the misty New Forest.
Our T'ai Chi Master has said to keen young students visiting the school, wondering why they can't download all our 'techniques' from YouTube, 'There is a method, but not a system'. At class we spend our time moving very softly, mostly slowly, although occasionally very quickly. We are studying and teaching many things that can't be spoken about, not because they are secrets, but because they are transmitted by touch and by closely following; movements made a thousand times before they settle in. Corrections are made by smiles and nods as the connection between one's hand and another person changes.
These days even art, music and T'ai Chi are increasingly taught in costly discrete modules, graded against a checklist, validated by owners of franchises for the purposes of signing you up for the next course, always offering you the next little nugget. Sometimes it seems that no thing, however seemingly natural, free or mutual is completely immune from being taken apart, reformulated and sold back to us. Mindfulness, for instance - possibly the most easily misunderstood aspect of Buddhist meditation - is the current ten-minute-a-day panacea, completely bypassing the radical allied practices of questioning one's fixed small idea of self or, say, practising non-harming (ahimsa) in life.
Like me, you may suspect that the heart of a great matter cannot be told. Increasingly, our society acts as if anything that can't be described in words or measured with devices doesn't exist. Many believe that all we are, all everything is, could be expressed as data. For me, this is a huge and world-damaging misconception – in the language of Iain McGilchrist’s 'The Master and His Emissary', it is indicative of an overly left-hemisphere-dominant view. If the non-measurable and the ungraspable do not exist, then for about 800 hours a year, for the last 20 years at least, my life has not existed.
For about a decade I made art, mostly bad paintings, thinking that at least there was something concrete to show for the time spent. The following decade I made music, and some of it was decent, but the CDs are mostly discarded, and the digital files exist mainly at the mercy of the web. Since late 2000 I've been regularly practising T'ai Chi and that leaves hardly any physical trace at all. What is made with my time and energy seems increasingly immaterial. Yet what is really going on is steadily more real, not least in its effects upon myself and the students.
What was good about studying a visual craft, especially drawing – as opposed to making Art – was really learning to look and to see. What was great about being in bands and improvising was learning to listen (and eventually to hear) what was going on between us as we played together. My T'ai Chi forms are deepening, and I still love pushing hands – but what is truly being learnt, whilst apparently studying what could be mistaken for a bunch of moves and techniques, is how to sense myself and others, and finally allow myself to feel, rather than to keep the world at bay. All these are examples of 'using the false to cultivate the real', a wonderfully counter-intuitive Taoist method, used to great effect by my teacher, and also shown in Chuang-Tzu's story of Cook Ting.
Right at the start of the tale, Cook Ting is cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui so skilfully that the carcass falls apart with a peculiar sound. The lord (here called the king) expresses admiration and says:
'Good! It seems that this is the consummation of technique.'
The butcher put down his cleaver and replied, 'What I like is the Way, which is more advanced than technique. But I will present something of technique.'
Here Chuang-Tzu reminds us that Tao precedes Te, prioritising the way in which over the means by which something is achieved. This is restated in how the Tao is manifested by a lowly cook, not a court poet or someone of high status. Iain McGilchrist writes that the story is used to 'illustrate the fact that a skill cannot be formulated in words or rules, but can be learned only by watching and following with one's eyes, one's hands, and ultimately one's whole being: the expert himself is unaware of how he achieves what it is he does.'
Then follows a great joke: Cook Ting has to put down his cleaver to speak to the king – which is to say he must stop his consummate uncontrived action (or non-doing), and start doing something, just to talk about what it was he wasn't doing. (The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way...)
Later, after showing how his knife is still razor sharp after nineteen years' daily use, since he does not hack into bones or so much as cut into gristle, the cook says, enigmatically:
'The joints have spaces in between, whereas the edge of the cleaver has no thickness. When that which has no thickness is put into that which has no space, there is ample room for moving the blade. This is why the edge of my cleaver is still as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone.'
This is not just another illustration of effortless skill, as is often assumed. Here we are shown another way to be, one almost entirely forgotten in our culture, but real, nonetheless. It is not just 'not-thinking-in-words', not even 'mindfulness', it is uncontrived immersion and truly sensing the world. This is not ethereal nonsense: the cleaver in the story is the mind, honed to the finest edge, i.e., taken far beyond discursive thought to open, empty awareness, sharp and awake, so it can play freely where there is seemingly no space. This is the domain of 'True Mercury' I wrote of in last week's essay.
However, the whole person wields this cleaver, this is no 'armchair art', (the wryly disparaging term used in some of the T'ai Chi Classics, regarding those who pontificate about correct practice but rarely ever do any... rather like those who hang out perpetually on Twitter in our era).
Cook Ting's still-sharp cleaver is a metaphor for a mind which has not been exhausted by habitual over-thinking; in use it is agile and free, qualities gained through correct training and wholehearted and, importantly, whole-bodied practice. Insights gained from books and study are indeed real, and the rigour and care with which the academic creates his or her work can be immense - how excellent this rigorous approach would be if also applied to our subtle sensations and genuine feelings.
Beyond the fineness of method that this story conveys, it also tells us that any art or right livelihood, however humble, can be a Way. I feel this possibility not just in T'ai Chi, but when out gathering in nature, when absorbed in making things with my hands, making art, or singing harmonies along with others.
Cook Ting says even of the ox he cuts up: ‘Now I meet it with spirit rather than look at it with my eyes'.
Afterword. To train this spirit, the original 'subtle knife', requires a disinvestment in emotionality and a return to the True Lead of genuine feeling. Everything about this method runs counter to the prevailing currents for identification with (so-called) self, investment in emotions and preoccupation with identity over behaviour. There are countless methods for cultivating a settled mind and healthy body, harmonious relationships and communal conviviality embedded to a greater or lesser degree in almost every extant traditional path and lifeway, and, miraculously, in a few quite modern paths too. Over the coming year we'll look deeper into some of these where I have personal experience.
In the meantime, I will leave you with a question. What are you constantly blunting your knife on? In other words, on what are you needlessly wearing out your mental and physical energy? Please feel free to use the comments to discuss this
This week’s good thing is being able to tell you that Dougald Hine’s book ‘At Work in the Ruins’ is now available to pre-order and will come out in February 2023. Placing a pre-order really helps get a book out there. I’ve read it, and it’s by turns trenchant, sad, uplifting, surprisingly funny and bold. Dougald has an uncanny way with true stories, and is always about to be at his wisest immediately after writing the words, ‘Just after I left…’
I'm a woodworker and I very much like "the edge of the cleaver has no thickness".
Just so !
Having read this story many times, you’ve shone a clear and succinct light on it and gives it a whole new depth for me. Thank you. Maybe too much reading..