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Chuang Tzu: “The Dexterous Butcher”

Here's a short story from "The Basic Writings" by the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, who lived around 4th century BC. The story is about a butcher cutting up meat, but once I read it, I have not been able to train without thinking about it.

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As 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 Ching-shou music.

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

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, 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 following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“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.

“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.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

If you've ever rolled with a really good black belt, then you know that they are not forcing anything. They let you do all the work, and they simply glide right through every gap in your game while you struggle against them. The best jiujitsu player is just like the butcher in this text; he uses his technique so that doing his job is effortless. If the situation is more difficult, instead of falling back on using his strength, he keeps calm, slows down, and continues to use technique with patience.

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blue belt hunter
10 points · 28 days ago

And he keeps his knife (body) sharp for 19 years instead of 1.

Renzo Gracie Academy
11 points · 28 days ago · edited 28 days ago

This is my favorite passage from the Chuang Tzu. It really perfectly captures, I think, what is interesting and worthwhile about grappling (or any sort of high focus craft for that matter) and, in a certain sense, is connected to Jiu-jitsu in a very deep way. Hear me out.

I actually came to the Chuang Tzu through Jiu-jitsu. I was interested in the history of the sport which led me into researching Judo and its founder Jigoro Kano.I became interested in Kano's conception of the role and purpose of Judo. He conceived of it as being something above and beyond a mere 'Jitsu' or 'technique' and thought instead of it as a 'way' or 'Do', or, in the original Chinese pronunciation 'Tao' or 'Dao'. His thoughts on this are really interesting and, I think, profound.

Regardless: through that I began to look into what historical figures might have influenced what he meant by 'the Way'. Taoism is fairly complex in this regard in that the historicity of many of its key figures are in doubt and the connection between so called 'religious' Taoism and 'philosophical' Taoism is really complex and fuzzy. I do think that large portions of Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu really seem to have had an impact on Kano's thinking (Even if at least only inadvertently so by influencing the cultural context into which he would grow and learn of the notion. Though it would'nt surprise me if Kano had actually read both of those texts).

I think the deepest connection between this passage and Kano's thoughts (and, by lineage, therefore, the Jiu-jitsu we practice), was Kano's notion of Seiryoku Zenyo. I could try and explain it but you are probably just better off reading what Kano himself wrote on the matter here.

I’m a big fan of this one. I also love the useless, ugly tree story a lot.

Another one you might like

"Breakfast at the Victory; The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience” by James Carse (Harper Collins, 1994), the author writes of the proprietor and sole employee at a busy Manhattan diner, Ernie: “It should have been obvious that he was actually preparing and serving food, but it wasn’t. Over the years his actions had been reduced to their minimum. Cutting and buttering a roll was a matter of a few effortless moves. Ernie’s actions having been reduced to their smallest size, we could not see him at the center of this activity for, Tao-like, no one was doing anything, yet nothing remained to be done.”

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