Saturday, June 15, 2013

How to Nourish Life V: Making Music

Scott Bradley


What King Hui observes in watching his cook butcher an ox is a performance, yet the cook does not experience it as such; he is lost in the activity. Before the cook describes this activity, however, we have a description of it from the point of view of an observer, and this is worth considering.

"Wherever his hand smacked it, wherever his shoulder leaned into it, wherever his foot braced it, wherever his knee pressed it, the thwacking tone of flesh falling from the bone would echo, the knife would whiz through with its resonant thwing, each stroke ringing out the perfect note, attuned to the ‘Dance of the Mulberry Grove’ or the ‘Jingshou Chorus’ of the ancient sage-kings." (Zhuangzi, 3:3; Ziporyn)

Butchering an ox, it turns out, can become a most intimate dance performed to its own music. The word for music here is the same as for "joy" and this correspondence is played upon both here and elsewhere in the Zhuangzi. Yang Shen (1488-1559) comments: "Where is there anywhere, when is there any moment, from which music — that is joy — is lacking?" We might reply, only when and where we do not allow it to be; for though it's all music, it takes a resonating heart to hear it. Once again we see that it all depends on us, not on the circumstances which come upon us. The onus of responsibility always falls on us, a reality both wonderful and terrible. Daoism, like Zen, always directs us back to ourselves as the final arbiters of our experienced reality.

The cook has performed for no one, not even himself, but when he comes back to himself: "Then all at once, I find the ox already dismembered at my feet like clumps of soil scattered on the ground. I retract the blade and stand there gazing at my work all around me, dawdling over it with satisfaction."

How to nourish life? We have yet to consider any specific 'method', but here we have the "why" — so we can gaze about with satisfaction. Nourishing life is thus making music; and music is joy.

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

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