A Master Class from a Butcher

Modern Insights of Laozi and Zhuangzi

20240327 Portrait of a master butcher cartoon 1
20240327 Portrait of a master butcher cartoon 1

How to master your craft.

Pāodīng Jiě Niú (庖丁解牛) is a renowned allegorical tale from the Zhuangzi’s (莊子) chapter of Yǎngshēng Zhǔ (養生主), dating back two and a half millennia. The tale recounts the story of Pāodīng (庖丁), a master butcher who possesses such extraordinary skill that he can carve up an ox without even glancing at his work. His proficiency is such that his knife remains unsharpened for 19 years, a testament to his mastery of the craft.
When the emperor expresses curiosity about Pāodīng’s remarkable success, the butcher attributes his mastery to a life guided by the principles of the Dao (道). He then systematically recounts the four stages of his development.

Stage 1 Apprentice Days.

Initially, he fumbles through the process, clumsily hacking the carcass into pieces. Unable to navigate around the bones, he finds himself needing to change to a new knife every month.

Stage 2 Three years of practice.

Through three years of devoted practice, he improves his grasp of ox’s anatomy, enabling him to discern individual components beneath the skin and conduct more precise dissections. This increased proficiency results in his needing to replace his knife once a year.

Stage 3 Nineteen Years of Mastery: Harmonizing Heart, Mind, and Skill

After nineteen years, he no longer relies on visual perception. Instead, an inner eye guides his hands—a silent symphony of spirit and intuition allowing him to navigate with effortless grace along the natural seams between flesh and frame. Remarkably, the blade, his companion for two decades, remains unnervingly sharp—a thunderous echo of the mastery it has witnessed.

Stage 4 Refinement: The Art of Validation, Fine-Tuning, and Freeform Creation.

Even the most seasoned butcher recognizes that tough cuts are unavoidable. When Pāodīng encounters a resistant section, he tackles it with meticulous care. These moments test his knowledge, refine his technique, and grant him a deeper understanding of his craft.

The mindset behind Pāodīng’s first transformation

Ascending society and achieving career success could have easily led to arrogance for Pāodīng. Yet, inspired by Laozi’s teachings of “non-reliance” (Fú shì- 弗 恃 & Bù shì- 不 恃, Passages 2, 10 & 51 of the Tao Te Ching), he transcends the allure of pride and external validation. Embracing the concept of “never seeking fullness” (bù yù yíng – 不欲盈) , he stays grounded in humility and commits to continuous refinement (Passage 15 of the Tao Te Ching). For Pāodīng, mastery is not a destination but an on-going journey of growth and learning.

Pāodīng’s second transformation

Pāodīng’s journey unfolds in two stages. The first, mastered in the initial three years, relies solely on his senses. The second transformation, spanning over a decade, merges his senses with his mind, refining his spatial awareness and tactile coordination. He learns to perceive and feel beyond the surface, uncovering “hidden gaps” (彼节者有间 – bì jié zhě yǒu jiān) within the ox’s structure. This newfound knowledge elevates him to the level of an expert, granting him a sense of “yóurèn yǒuyú” (游刃有余), meaning someone who is in control at every turn of their task. Pāodīng’s story exemplifies the truth that mastery arises from the wellspring of both theoretical understanding and tireless practice.

Pāodīng’s final transformation

No longer burdened by technical details, he infuses artistic and playful elements into his once-mundane routine. Zhuangzi describes a captivating scene: Pāodīng’s body – hands, shoulders, feet, and knees – becomes an orchestra. For the emperor, it is a mesmerizing ballet – Pāodīng’s movements choreograph into a flawless fusion, akin to a hundred butterflies flitting from flower to flower, accompanied by a crescendo of harmonious melodies.

20240327 Portrait of a master butcher cartoon 2
20240327 Portrait of a master butcher cartoon 2

Pāodīng the master butcher – the vivid illustration of Dao principle at work

Laozi never gave a clear definition of the Dao, but he described how it could reveal itself in different circumstances (passages 37, 38, 81, etc. of Tao Te Ching). The Dao is both a hidden reality that shapes everything (i.e., noumenon) and a visible force we can see through our actions (i.e., a phenomenon). Through our desires, inspirations and motivations (yù – 欲), we can visualize the work of Dao (yǒu yù, yǐ guān qí jiǎo – 有欲以观其徼 Passage 1 of Tao Te Ching). Through Pāodīng’s unwavering attitudes towards learning, Zhuangzi reveals how different principles of Dao manifest their influence even in mundane tasks like butchering a cow, turning them into experiences filled with purpose and fulfillment.
The mastery of Pāodīng truly reflects the essence of Dao (道), which lies in living a life that is prudent and dignified, inclusive and broad-minded, effortlessly active (liú – 飂) yet composed (dàn – 澹). His mastery isn’t the result of flawlessness, but rather the outcome of his relentless self-awareness regarding bù yù yíng, Fú shì, and Bù shì. Unburdened by complacency and pride, these factors drive him towards continuous improvement (bì ér xīn chéng – 蔽而新成) and ultimately, success. (Passage 15)

Conclusion: The Paradox of Effort and the Dao.

We all know the saying: “iron rod (铁杵 – tiě chǔ) can be pounded into a needle (mó chéng zhēn – 磨成针)”. It teaches that with persistent effort, anything is possible. Yet, the world is full of stories where some achieve their goals despite seemingly less effort, while others toil without success. This begs the question: is the Dao, the natural order of the universe, truly impartial? Shouldn’t it reward those who put in the hard work?
While the fundamental Dao itself may be impartial (the noumenal aspect), the results we achieve in pursuing our aspirations (the phenomenal aspect) are profoundly influenced by our attitudes. Unvirtuous actions, complacency, self-centeredness, a lack of drive, inflated ego, and craving external approval can all act as roadblocks on our path. The Daoist principles of ‘non-reliance’ (Fú shì- 弗 恃 & Bù shì- 不 恃) and ‘content but not stagnant’ ‘ (bù yù yíng -不欲盈) remind us to stay grounded and persevere with a cautious attitude. These resilient mindsets, coupled with dedicated effort, are what differentiate the ordinary butcher from one who transcends his craft and belongs to the Olympian Class.

Herbert Chow (周文斌) Residing in San Diego with roots in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Herbert bridges the gap between science and art. By day, he works as a biotech professional, but his true passion lies in vibrant acrylic paintings and introspective writings.

Herbert’s artwork, which includes landscapes, seascapes, and soaring birds, captures the essence of nature’s tranquility and power. Inspired by the wisdom of Zhuangzi and Laozi, he delves into themes often overlooked in our fast-paced world: self-reflection, interconnections, and the true essence of life.

Through his art and writing, Herbert invites viewers on a journey of mindfulness, offering a deeper understanding of life’s complexities and a path toward a more fulfilling existence.

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