The Ox-Blade Incident

Several years ago, Alice Walker, activist and author of the novel The Color Purple, made the following comment in an interview with Democracy Now:

Life is abundant, and life is beautiful. And it’s a good place that we’re all in, you know, on this earth, if we take care of it.”

I’m sure you agree that not only should we take care of our planet, but we should also take care of life itself.

All spiritual traditions teach that life is precious. In Buddhism, human life is called the “precious human rebirth” because the traditional teachings say it is a rare thing to be reborn a human being, and as the Dalai Lama tells us, “[One] has unique possibilities to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth.”

Not everyone is on board with rebirth. Whether you are on the bus or off is incidental to the matter of sustaining life. Chuang Tzu had some thoughts about it in a passage I’ve adapted from some translations:

Human life is limited, but wisdom is limitless. To use the limited to chase what has no limit is dangerous; and to suppose that one really knows can be fatal!

In doing good, avoid fame. In doing bad, avoid disgrace. Find the middle course and use it as your compass. This way you will guard yourself from harm, preserve your life, fulfill your duties to friends and family, and live a full life.

ox_2Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. With his every movement, he sliced in perfect rhythm, and this caused Wen-hui to say, “Your skill amazing.”

Cook Ting put the knife down and said, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw before me whole animal. Now, after three years’ practice, I no longer see the ox at all. Now I am able to work with my mind and not with my eye. Insight and training have been replaced by instinct, which alone guides my movements. I follow the natural structure of the ox and slice in the big grooves. Then I move my blade through the large openings, and follow things as they are.

“A good cook will only change his knife once a year because he cuts, and an ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and it is just as good as it was when it first came from the grindstone. Whenever I come to a place that is tough, I gauge the difficulties, steady my hand, and gently glide the blade. And when I am done, I wipe the knife off with a degree of satisfaction and put it carefully away.”

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

Unlike some cooks I’ve met, Ting was not a perfectionist, and yet, by following the path of natural action and abiding in a state of detached equanimity, he found a level of perfection. Life is precious and beautiful and it is a process of constant change. So we say that the best way to nurture life is to flow with its natural rhythm, letting things be themselves, letting go.

You can find the Alice Walker interview, along with her poem, “Democratic Womanism” at Democracy Now.