You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

—W. H. Auden


“I found a universal rule which appears to govern human actions or words more than any other: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a rough and dangerous reef, and (to use perhaps a novel word for it) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura which suppresses all artifice and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.”
Baldassare Castiglione-1478 – 1529

The Chef Cuts The Ox

Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove”

Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox

All in one mass.

“After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening,
The hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“A great cook needs a new chopper
Once a year – he cuts.
A poor cook needs a new one
Every month – he hacks!

“I have used this same cleaver
Nineteen years.
It has cut up
A thousand oxen.
Its edge is as keen
As if newly sharpened.
“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver
Nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”

Prince Wen Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!”

~ Zhuangzi (translated by Thomas Merton)

This entry was posted in clarity of purpose, psychology, systems thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ox

  1. Tobias says:

    I once wrote a something based on the Ox poem—same translation. It’s an inspiring poem, a good metaphor for a healthy approach to organizational transformation.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      I was reading Dan Pink’s “Drive” and found that Auden poem, in a bit talking about flow. Not organisational flow, the other one, when people are “in the zone”. And it was that that reminded me of the Ox story, reading it also as being in flow.


      • Tobias says:

        I read Drive, but don’t remember the Auden poem, so thanks for calling it out here. It’s a beautiful poem, especially that last stanza, “How beautiful it is, / that eye-on-the-object look.” Indeed. I’m starting a new job on Monday, with thousands of new people. I shall be on the look out for that eye-on-the-object look, that state of being in flow.


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