The beginner sees the whole ox



A nice story from the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, which will also allow me to call attention to an aspect of know-how and of awareness that interests me particularly. We might call this a non-Eastern idea of connectedness.

My adaptation here is based on Jean François Billeter’s French translation of Chuang Tzu’s chapter on “nourishing the life in yourself” and on Burton Watson’s English one:

Ting, a cook, was cutting up an ox for the prince Wen-hui. The sound of the knife rang out as he worked his way through and around the carcass. The sound of the knife had a rhythm, as if Ting were performing a dance or keeping time to music.

“This is marvelous!” exclaimed the prince. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

The cook laid down his knife and replied, “What interests me, your humble servant, is how things are done, and this is something more than 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 simply know what is to be done and don’t look with my eyes. My senses and thoughts are no longer involved; my mind is in tune with the muscles and tendons of the ox.”

From one perspective this is simply a description of stages involved in gaining know-how, of how the skill of a craftsperson is transformed over time, or of how, say, an immigrant gets to know a new city. First she might be overwhelmed by the complexity and foreignness of the place; then she might get a map and start figuring things out, making mental notes of landmarks, best routes, and so forth. And then comes the point when not only her movements but her life itself is in synch with the patterns of the town.

When I was younger (sharper of mind and also driving every day) I used to say that I did not need a map or need to look at the signs on American highways. The Interstate system was so ingrained in me, it was as if the car I was driving could be counted on to take the correct roads, make the correct turns. Of course my hand was on the wheel, but no conscious thought seemed to be involved in arriving at the destination.

There may, however, be a large difference between this Interstate experience and the experience of a butcher cutting up meat. I have italicized “may” because I am not sure that this difference is large or material, or not. The potential difference is that an Interstate is lifeless whereas a carcass may speak strongly about life, another being, suffering and death. It may be hard at first to cut into the flesh and between the joints of another being without thinking or feeling about being similarly attacked or lifeless oneself. I take this to be one way of reading the cook’s initial problem: “all I could see was the ox itself.”

An extreme case here is the brain surgeon. In order to be able to carry out even the most basic operations does he or she need to have been unusually oriented—say, by unpleasant relationships when a child—so that s/he is never distracted by the fact, never even notices, that s/he is cutting into another human being’s brain—into another mind perhaps?

From this perspective, we can see that obtaining a certain kind of consummate skill involves not only the sort of harmony or immersion that the cook describes, but also a detachment. In no longer seeing, feeling or thinking about what he was doing, Ting was indeed no longer seeing, feeling or thinking about what he was doing. His one-ness with the task also involved an alienation, an absence of the self and its thoughts and emotions. I would not say that Ting should have become a vegetarian, but—while admiring his skill at butchering and while appreciating the necessity of gaining such skill in order to earn a good living and without a great deal of struggle and anxiety—I note what has been lost as technical mastery has been gained. Since Chuang Tzu wrote in the fourth century before the Common Era, it is anachronistic to use to the word “robot” to describe Ting’s butchering. Yet there is a sense in which he was an extraordinarily supple, accurate and contented robot.

And it should not be ignored that, like officials of the Catholic Church in days of yore, Chinese philosophers were often connected to the government. Or, alternatively, we can note that the Chinese educational system over centuries used and thus preserved and exalted certain texts and certain interpretations of them, as various religious groups have done with various parts of the Bible and as the Catholic Church long did with translations of Aristotle or, perhaps, as the American educational system now uses To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. Thus it becomes difficult not to read at least some of these canonical texts as urging the people to be as their governments or societies have wanted them to be. As there is a way of reading passages in Aristotle as saying that happiness involves “knowing your place,” there is a way of reading Chuang Tzu’s parable of the cook and the ox as saying “just do your job.” Perhaps what the prince Wen-hui finds most marvelous is that one of the people who works for him is so content.


One of the Zen (or Zen-ish?) sayings that has been popular is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” It seems to me that a tension can be found in this phrase—the beginner seeming naïve but enthusiastic; the expert hardened by experience, perhaps even a little bitter. Those who read more of Suzuki’s text will see that his point is not this and is more complex than it appears in the single phrase, but certainly he shares my view (or I his) that there is a lot to be said for the beginner’s mind.

As regards butchering and the cook Ting, what I wish to say is that the beginner sees the whole ox, and that makes the butchering much more difficult, but also a more complete, more connected experience.


— William Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor



Click for pdf of this post.

Jean François Billeter, Leçons sur Tchouang-Tseu (Allia, 2006).

Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1964). Watson’s translation of this parable, along with another English translation by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, can be found at a Bureau of Public Secrets website. Note that various transliterations of Chuang Tzu’s name are now being used. These include Zhuang Zhou, Zhuangzi, Chuang Chou, and Chuang-tzu.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shambala, 2011). First published in 1970.

For other Zeteo posts on Eastern philosophy see  Sutra as Power Play and There are at least twenty things that are hard for human beings.

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