Following the Path of the Least Resistance

Zhuangzi 3

庖丁為文惠君解牛,手之所觸,肩之所倚,足之所履,膝之所踦,砉然嚮然,奏刀騞然,莫不中音。合於《桑林》之舞,乃中《經首》之會。文惠君曰:「譆,善哉!技蓋至此乎?」 庖丁釋刀對曰:「臣之所好者道也,進乎技矣。始臣之解牛之時,所見无非牛者。三年之後,未嘗見全牛也。方今之時,臣以神遇而不以目視,官知止而神欲行。依乎天理,批大郤,導大窾,因其固然。技經肯綮之未嘗,而況大軱乎!良庖歲更刀,割也;族庖月更刀,折也。今臣之刀十九年矣,所解數千牛矣,而刀刃若新發於硎。彼節者有間,而刀刃者无厚;以无厚入有間,恢恢乎其於遊刃必有餘地矣,是以十九年而刀刃若新發於硎。雖然,每至於族,吾見其難為,怵然為戒,視為止,行為遲。動刀甚微,謋然已解,如土委地。提刀而立,為之四顧,為之躊躇滿志,善刀而藏之。」文惠君曰:「善哉!吾聞庖丁之言,得養生焉。」

A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed–with a zip! with a whoosh!–he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, “Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!”

The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, “What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn’t see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns (天理), strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces (間) between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space — oh! there’s plenty of extra room to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as though fresh from the grindstone.

“Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it’s come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away.”

Lord Wenhui said, “Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!” (Paul Kjellberg)

Guanzi 29 (10.4)


“When ox-butcher Tan in one morning carved up nine oxen but his knife could still engrave iron, it was because it travelled between the joints (間).” (W. Allyn Rickett)

Lüshi Chunqiu 9.5


“Cook Ding of Song was so devoted to butchering oxen that he looked at nothing but dead oxen. For three years he did not even see a live ox. He had used his knife for nineteen years, and the blade was as if it had just been sharpened. This happened because he was in accord with its natural principles (理) and was intent on the oxen.”
(Riegel and Knoblock)

Huainanzi 11


“Butcher Dan cut up nine cows in one morning, and his knife was sharp enough to split a hair. Cook Ding used his knife for nineteen years, and his knife was as if just cast and sharpened. Why is this? It roamed among the many spaces (間).” (Andrew Meyer)

Xinshu 2.3


“In one morning, ox-butcher Tan could dismember twelve oxen without his knife becoming blunt. What he cleared, struck, skinned and cut was all divided according to the existing pattern (理). When he got to the pelvis and femur, if he could not use his axe, he used a hatchet. Now, benevolence, righteousness, kindness and generosity are the ruler’s sharp knife. Power, purchase, law and regulation are his axe and hatchet. Once authority has been fixed and power has been made sufficient, then by means of (these four virtues) one gives them a basis and spreads them. Therefore when virtue is disseminated, the people of the world will long for it.” (Mark Csikszentmihalyi)


All deal with operating within an area that offers no resistance. Jia Yi in the last example attaches a Confucian-Legalist spin on it. Both Zhuangzi and Jia Yi acknowledge occasional difficulties one must deal with, but give different methods.