Trying Not to Try: Review and Summary Notes

Trying Not to Try

Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland

See all 300+ book summaries and reviews

Trying Not to Try


A summary of 无为 (Wú wéi).

The Dexterous Butcher from Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi’s Butcher Ding, a Social Critique

Ding, the butcher, slaughtered an ox for Wen-Hui, the ruler. He tore it with his hands, shoved it with his shoulders, whacked it with his feet, and hit it with his knees. The smacking and the crushing, the knife’s hissing and slicing: all were perfectly in tune. Motions were in time with the “Mulberry Grove” dance, and sounds matched the Jingshou music.

Wen-Hui, the ruler, said: “Magnificent! How can skill reach such perfection?”

Stowing his knife, the butcher said: “What I care about is the Dao, so I go a step further than skill. When I began slaughtering oxen, all I would see was oxen; but after three years, I wouldn’t even see a whole ox anymore. These days, I approach them with the spirit, not looking at them with my eyes.

My sense perception stops and my spiritual determination goes to work. I rely on the natural structures to strike through the big cracks, lead through the big holes, follow through as it must be. I never cut through the thicker nodes and sinews, and of course not through the big bones.

Decent butchers change their knives yearly. They slash. Average butchers change their knives monthly. They hack. I’ve got my knife for nineteen years now and slaughtered thousands of oxen with it. Its blade is just as good as a new one right off the whetstone.

Those joints have space in between, and a knife’s blade has no thickness. When what has no thickness goes into the in-between, there is surely more than enough room for the blade to ramble around at ease. This is why after nineteen years my knife’s blade is just as good as a new one right off the whetstone.

Still, each time I encounter some gristle that I see is hard to handle, I hold back most cautiously. My eyes fixed on that spot, I almost grind down to a halt. Then I move the knife subtly, and in an instant the butchering has been done: the pieces lie on the ground like scattered soil. Presenting my knife, I stand, turning to face all four directions, with an air of pride and satisfaction. Then I wipe the knife clean and put it away.”

Wen-Hui, the ruler, said: “Splendid! I hear the words of Ding, the butcher, and understand how to nourish one’s life!”

← Back to Bookshelf