The Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu. Chapter 3. Argument: Life too short. Wisdom unattainable. Accommodation to circumstances. Liberty paramount. Death a release. The soul immortal.*

My life has a limit, but my knowledge is without limit. To drive the limited in search of the limitless, is fatal; and the knowledge of those who do this is fatally lost.

In striving for others, avoid fame. In striving for self, avoid disgrace. Pursue a middle course. Thus you will keep a sound body, and a sound mind, fulfil your duties, and work out your allotted span.

Prince Hui's cook was cutting up a bullock. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every tread of his foot, every thrust of his knee, every whshh of rent flesh, every chhk of the chopper, was in perfect harmony, rhythmical like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, simultaneous like the chords of the Ching Shou.

'Well done!' cried the Prince. 'Yours is skill indeed.'

'Sire', replied the cook; 'I have always devoted myself to Tao. It is better than skill. When I first began to cut up bullocks, I saw before me simply whole bullocks. After three years' 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 natural constitution of the animal. I do not attempt to cut through joints: 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 nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. By these means the interstice 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 whetstone.

'Nevertheless, when I come upon a hard part where the blame meets with a difficulty, I am all caution. I fix my eye on it. I stay my hand, and gently apply 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.'

When Hsien, of the Kung-wen family, beheld a certain official, he was horrified, and said, 'Who is that man? How came he to lose a foot? Is this the work of God, or of man?

'Why, of course', continued Hsien, 'it is the work of God, and not of man. When God brought this man into the world, he wanted him to be unlike other men. Men always have two feet. From this it is clear that God and not man made him as he is.

'Now, wild fowl get a peck once in ten steps, a drink once in a hundred. Yet they do not want to be fed in a cage. For although they would thus be able to command food, they would not be free.'

When Lao Tzu died, Ch'in Shih went to mourn. He uttered three yells and departed.

A disciple asked him saying, 'Were you not our Master's friend?'

'I was', replied Ch'in Shih.

'And if so, do you consider that a sufficient expression of grief at his loss?' added the disciple.

'I do', said Ch'in Shin. 'I had believed him to be the man of all men, but now I know that he was not. When I went in to mourn, I found old persons weeping as if for their children, young ones wailing as if for their mothers. And for him to have gained the attachment of those people in this way, he too must have uttered words which should not have been spoken, and dropped tears which should not have been shed, thus violating eternal principles, increasing the sum of human emotion, and forgetting the source from which his own life was received. The ancients called such emotions the trammels of mortality. The Master came, because it was his time to be born; he went, because it was his time to die. For those who accept the phenomenon of birth and death in this sense, lamentation and sorrow have no place. The ancients spoke of death as of God cutting down a man suspended in the air. The fuel is consumed, but the fire may be transmitted, and we know not that it comes to an end.'

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* Translated from the Chinese by Herbert A. Giles. First edition, 1889; second edition, 1923.




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