Prince Wen Hui’s Cook
At the start of a recent push hands class I read my favorite story from Zhangzi (Chuang-tsu). I think it captures an essential quality of higher level martial arts of all kinds.
Prince Wen Hui’s cook was an absolute marvel, a master of his art. He displayed effortless grace as he butchered the livestock that would be featured at the Prince’s table. The prince was unstinting in his praise. The cook responded:
“What your servant really cares about is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes [“Use the Force, Luke!”]. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over.”
(All quotes from Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.)
Clearly, the cook would enter a transrational state (spirit=shen) while performing the mundane actions of his craft. He’s slaughtering animals, yet exhibits such a high level gongfu it comes from spiritual place. What does this allow him to do?
“A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone.”
Here’s the secret:
“There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass between these spaces.”
He’s not cutting muscle, sinew, bone, and ligament. He’s cutting space! This is Taijiquan. It’s moving meditation. He’s able to perceive the path of least resistance and move through it like water. He has enough gongfu (skill and experience) to know what he’s doing, but then he takes it to another level. By engaging his spirit as he works, he is able to sense things he can’t with just his mind. In a transrational state he is able to process much more information than in the rational mode. Transrational has a much bigger bandwidth.
“When I come to a difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, keep my eyes on what I am doing, and work slowly. Then with a slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open. It falls apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.”
Wu wei (action based in absolute non-action). He moves from stillness. He “listens” with his knife, seeking that path of least resistance. When found, little force is needed to bring about a huge effect. When he “comes to difficulty” he doesn’t just try to force his way through, he brings his awareness to the challenge and works slowly, trusting in his gongfu.
Prince Wen Hui’s cook illustrates two very important lessons for push hands:
1. We can better access our gongfu from a transrational state.
2. The highest level of gongfu seeks the path of least resistance.
When we respond to a challenge from a prerational (Eye of Flesh) state, our responses are usually filtered through reptile brain responses (fight, flight, or freeze). Body consciousness is incredible when functioning properly, but reverts to a fear-based state when threatened. This is the lowest level of gongfu.
Rational (Eye of Mind) consciousness allows us to see differences and similarities, to contrast and compare and is an essential stage for developing gongfu. This mode can easily be overwhelmed by challenges to the system and easily reverts to a fear-based response. This is because rationality has a fragmenting effect on our body/mind, by its very nature. This is not a bad thing, generally, but good gongfu requires that we act from wholeness, not fragmentation.
Transrational consciousness transcends and includes both the prerational and rational.
We still feel and we still think, but we’re not limited by those modes of consciousness.
Transrational consciousness allows us to sense in ways unavailable to the other two. A higher level of intuition can be cultivated that permits us to sense in ways that can seem superhuman.
Like the cook, we act from our spirit, not from pre-programmed patterns of behavior. He was able to find spaces where others would only see solid mass. Michelangelo could see the finished work in the lines of raw marble. A great kick returner in football sees seams in the defense develop a second or two before anyone else.
High level taijiquan always seeks the path of least resistance. It eschews meeting force with force. Instead, the ideal is to use “four ounces to control a thousand pounds of force”. How do we hope to develop such skill?
Certainly not by doing knuckle push ups and dead lifts. The answer lies not in adding to physical strength, but in shifting our state of consciousness. This doesn’t deny the importance of physical conditioning, it just states its limitation. We don’t need a lot of force to get the job done, just enough to slide a blade through the spaces.