Monday, January 14, 2013

Undoing An Ox: Bloodied Dao

Scott Bradley

The story of Cook Ding in the third chapter of the Zhuangzi is among the best known and most appreciated. Unlike many stories in that book, this one tells us precisely what it is intended to teach: How to nourish life.

Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) remarks on the peculiar irony involved in teaching how to nourish life through the butchering of a recently slaughtered ox. In this regard he refers to a Buddhist story of a butcher who, upon dropping his cleaver, becomes a buddha. Cook Ding, in contrast, picks up his cleaver and unites himself, his cleaver and the ox with Dao. Though we must be careful of anachronistic thinking (for centuries still awaited the introduction of Buddhism into China) this contrast is, nonetheless, instructive. Daoism wades right into life, blood and guts, death as a prerequisite to life. Buddhism, on the other hand, attempts to sanitize life; it knows a better, more moral, way than the way of nature. Nature, for Buddhism, is "fallen", and therefore requires redemption. For Daoism, nature is perfect just as it is.

We need not snarl and resume gnawing on bones, however. There is in humanity a unique sensibility, a caring for things, which is ever much an expression of what nature has wrought as nature "red in tooth and claw". This, too, is worthy of nurture. The question is whether we can do so without denying nature and imposing values where they have no place.

Perhaps the balance is found in thankfulness. Some time ago I shared a poem by Gibran in which he called for the sanctification of our slaughter of beings for our nourishment through thankfulness. Much as did the Native Americans, we acknowledge and honor our prey in thanking them for their gift. At the same time, we do not stop there, thinking we are at the top of a pyramid and exempted from the cycle of life- and death-giving. With every slaughter we acknowledge our own eventual slaughter. Zhuangzi does not mince words on this point, declaring nature as that which also slaughters us. It is true that we seldom feed the tigers, or even that we parcel out deceased parental bits for friends and community, but we do feed the worms and bacteria. We do that even while we live.

We can do more, of course. We can become vegetarians or vegans, should circumstances allow and we feel so inclined. Yet even then we cannot extricate ourselves from the unavoidable reality that our lives require the extinction of other lives — in the garden, on the road, in the shower.

All this is another way of saying that life is messy. It does not resolve to moral platitudes. Everything we do is a working-through of life's complexities. Cook Ding's dao of butchery is intended to show us how to do so with grace and ease.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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