Saturday, July 23, 2016

Chuang Tzu: the Cook and Mastery

I have found an interesting discussion on the Cook by Chuang Tzu on Wikipedial


It does begin to get at what mastery begins.


Cook Ting was slicing up an oxen for Lord Wenhui. At every push of his hand, every angle of his shoulder, every step with his feet, every bend of his kneezip! zoop! he slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were dancing to Mulberry Grove or keeping time as in Qingshou music.


"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wenhui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"


Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is a tao which advances my skill. When first I began cutting up oxen, I could see nothing that was not ox. After three years, I never saw a whole ox. And nownow I go at it by spirit and do not look with my eyes. Controlling knowledge has stopped and my spirit wills the performance. I depend on the natural makeup, cut through the creases, guide through fissures. I depend on things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less bone."


"A good cook changes his knife once a yearbecause he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a monthbecause he hacks. I have had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it. Yet the blade is as good as if it had just come from the grindstone. . . . "


"Despite that, I regularly come to the end of what I am used to. I see its being hard to carry on. I become alert; my gaze comes to rest. I slow down my performance and move the blade with delicacy. Then zhrup! it cuts through and falls to the ground. I stand with the knife erect, look all around, deem it wonderfully fulfilling, strop the knife and put it away."


Traditional interpreters stress the mystical flavor, the reference to tao. One way to read the claim that tao advances skill is as the claim that it surpasses skill. This traditional commitment to a mystical, monistic tao requires that accomplishment not be related in ordinary ways to practice and skill. It must come from some sudden and inexplicable insight, mystical experience or attitude. This interpretation coincides with a familiar Zen view. The absolutist monistic interpretation should resist the suggestion that Ting knows his tao and still can improve. How can you have some of a tao that has no parts? When you have it you suspend entirely all thought and sensation.


Cook Ting's story clashes slightly with this religious or mystical view of Chuang Tzu's advice. His description implies that Ting has a hold on a particular way of doing one thing. Ting's way is developing. He continues to progress in pursuing his skill by tracing his tao to points beyond his previous training. When he comes to a hard part, he has to pay attention, make distinctions, try them out and then move on. This supports the view that developing skill eventually goes beyond what we can explain with concepts, distinctions, or language. The focus required for a superb performance may not be compatible with a deliberating self-consciousness.


The Butcher does not say that he began at that level of skill. He does not report any sudden conversion where some mystical insight flowed into him. He does not say that he could just get in tune with the absolute Tao and become a master butcher automatically. And he does not hint that by being a master butcher, he is in command of all the skills of life. He could not use his level of awareness at will to become a master jet pilot or a seamstress. His is not an account of some absolute, single, prior tao but of the effect of mastering some particular tao. We all recognize the sense of responsive awareness which seems to suspend self-other consciousness.


It is natural to express this ideal of skill mastery in the language which suggests mystical awareness. It does normally involve suspension of selfconsciousness, ratiocination and seems like surrender to an external force. That language should not confuse us, however. Chuang Tzu's mingillumination should help us see that the full experience is compatible with having his perspective on perspectives.


Cook Ting can be aware that others may have different ways to dissect an ox. He simply cannot exercise his skill while he is trying to choose among them. We lose nothing in appreciating the multiple possibilities of ways to do things. In realizing a tao of some activity in us, we make it real in us. It is neither a mere, inert, cognition of some external force nor a surrender to a structure already innate in us.


Note, further, that Cook Ting's activity is cutting--dividing something into parts. When he is mastering his guiding tao, he perceives a world in which the ox is already cut up. He comes to see the holes and fissures and spaces as inherent in nature. That seems a perfect metaphor for our coming to see the world as divided into the natural kinds that correspond to our mastery of terms. When we master a tao we must be able to execute it in a real situation. It requires finding the distinctions (concepts) used in instruction as mapping on nature. We don't have time, anymore, to read the map, we begin to see ourselves as reading the world. Mastering any tao thus yields this sense of harmony with the world. It is as if the world, not the instructions, guides us.


This feature of tao mastery explains the temptation to read Taoist use as having become metaphysical. Guidance may, in the first instance, be broadly linguistic--telling, pointing, modeling. The choice of a butcher for this parable seems significant too. Butchering is seldom held as a noble profession. Even the "Ting" may be significant--it may not be the cook's name but a sign of relatively low rank--something like an also-ran. Other popular examples of the theme include the cicada catcher and wheelwright. Chuang Tzu probably intends to signal that this level of expertise is available within any activity. Common interpretations, however, suggest that some activities are ruled out.


The examples above, together with Chuang Tzu's obvious delight in parable, fantasy, and poetry invite the common hypothesis that, in the West, he would be a romantic--suspicious of direct, reasoned, logical discourse in favor of the more "emotional" arts. At least, one should eschew "intellectual" activities. That he is critical of Hui Shih, the alleged logician, supports this reading. The problem is that Chuang Tzu's parallels his comments about Hui Shih with similar comments about a lute player. Furthermore, the criticism does not seem to be the activity, but the search for absolute know-how. Chuang Tzu's "criticism" is that in being good at X, these paradigms of skill are miserably inept at Y. This is another example of ch'eng (completion) which Chuang Tzu argues is always accompanied by hui (defect).

We may achieve this absorption in performance by achieving skill at any tao--dancing, skating, playing music, butchering, chopping logic, lovemaking, skiing, using language, programming computers, throwing pottery, or cooking. At the highest levels of skill, we reach a point where we seem to transcend our own selfconsciousness. What once felt like a skill developing inside us, begins to feel like control from the natural structure of things. Our normal ability to respond to complex feedback bypasses conscious processing. In our skilled actions, we have internalized a heightened sensitivity to the context.

These reflections lead us to a problem with "achieve tao mastery" as a prescription. I shall argue that the problems are both textual and theoretical. On other places, (as we noted above) Chuang Tzu is more equivocal about the value of mastery. Any mastery, Chuang Tzu notes, must leave something out. Most particularly, to master any skill is to ignore others. Chuang Tzu remarks that masters are frequently not good teachers. They fail to transmit their mastery to their sons or disciples.

Chuang Tzu directs our attention to this problem with the glorification of total skill dedication and mastery. We trade any accomplishment at one skill for ineptitude at some other thing. The absent minded professor is our own favorite parody. If the renowned practitioners have reached completion, he says, then so has everyone. If they have not, then no one can. From the hinge of ways perspective, we no more value the world's top chess player than the world's finest jack of all trades. We need not read Chuang Tzu as advocating specialization per se.

Thus the three parts in Chuang Tzu's dao pull in separate directions and we must treat each as tentative and conditional. The flexibility advice seems hard to follow if we also accept convention and work for single-minded mastery. That, in the end, may the message of perspectivalism. We have limits, but we might as well get on with it.

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