Khing, the master woodcarver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied, “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit. I did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise and criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits”.



”The Woodcarver” by Thomas Merton, from THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU, copyright ©1965 by The Abbey of Gethsemani.

Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

6 thoughts on “THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU”

  1. I remember Chuang Tzu very well–we had a book, I always found him very accessible–lovely quote, although it sounds a bit arduous. . .

    1. Still have that original book in Dad’s oriental library.

      The Woodcarver: no doubt exaggerated a bit to make the point….

  2. Love this a lot–the phrase ‘collective thought’–gathering your thought over some days till it was ripe and mature, to the point where the work ‘falls off the tree, just happens–almost by itself. And the preparation before anything starts is very vedic

  3. One other thought Chris–I read this word ‘fasting’ as transcending–not feeding the senses–and, by settling the mind, the well-spring of creativity is enlivened–often something is lost in the translation

    1. Yes, this is an interpretation by Thomas Merton. He could not read ancient Chinese calligraphy; but he brought together four or five English translations, and – in conjunction with a Chinese scholar – came up with his own version, which is generally regarded as very fine.

      At any rate, we could say that ‘fasting’ signifies ‘going within’ – drawing the arrow back on the bow – as a prelude to creation….

      I feel pretty sure Chuang Tzu would endorse that interpretation!

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