14 April 2017
The Cook and His Cleaver
I wrote this for Dark Mountain 8 - Techne, 2015. With DM11 just about to come out I thought I'd finally post the essay here, as it pertains to our T'ai Chi.
Have a relaxing and enlivening Easter break.
The Cook and His Cleaver
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 new 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 12 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 to actually hear what was going on between us as we played together. My T'ai Chi forms are deepening, and I 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. 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, in Chinese 'wu-wei'), and start doing something, just to talk about what it was he wasn't doing.
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. However the whole person wields it, 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 online forums 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 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, 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'.