In the Zen story of the master butcher, the butcher sharpens the knife and gets out of the way. The knife finds its own path. We have to understand what “sharpening the knife” means for us and our lives. What is the “knife” for us? How do we “sharpen” it? Once we know that, then it’s only a matter of getting out of the way and allowing our “knife,” our “knack,” so to speak, to find its own path and lead us along the way.
The problem with this, of course, is that the path may not be the path we have in mind. We may wish for ourselves a bigger, better, finer path. We may not want to be a butcher. We may want to be king. Or queen. We may want the shine and sheen of stardom. Or the invisibility of a face in the crowd. We have our ideas, you know, about our lives and how they should be lived. There you are. That’s the problem.
Who is running the show? That’s the problem. Who is in charge here? That’s the problem. We don’t have what it takes to “sharpen the knife and get out of the way.” We have to be in control. “Give us the baton!”, we shout. “We’ll direct the orchestra!” We like to think we know what we are doing, and discount all evidence to the contrary, while continuing to formulate our plans and adjust our design, and create something on the order of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. Except that our apparatus doesn’t work.
Architects are always putting sidewalks where people do not walk. We think we know how things ought to be, but we do not allow things to tell us how they ought to be. We impose our ideas for our lives on our lives, and do not listen to our lives, or live within legitimate limits, or restrain our desire for beer and chocolate and cocaine and plastic in light of the impact of our desire on the whole of life. If we want it, we get it, and then go after the next thing we want. We are a way stop to the land fill for ten billion things. We pour sidewalks where people do not walk.
We are in a hurry for things to be better. We cannot stand how things are. We will not sit and listen. We will not take our time. We will not see and serve what needs to happen. We know what we want and what’s in our way. We cut the trees and pour the concrete. We attack Iraq and give them democracy. We think everyone should have democracy. We think we will be safe if everyone has democracy. And, overlook the fact that gay people in this country have democracy, and are not safe. Poor people in this country have democracy, and are not safe. We look at democracy and see something else. Democracy is not what we think it is. Democracy does not work the way we think it works. We also overlook the fact that we cannot tolerate democracy ourselves, and have dispensed with it, and erected in its place Rule By The Special Interest Group With The Most Votes (or, sometimes, just the most money).
We do not listen. We do not see. We do not seek to understand. We impose our way on the world. We push our way through the world. We compel the world to align itself with our ideas for the world. We cut the trees. Pour the concrete. And smile.
Lao Tsu says, “Do your work and step back. That is the secret to serenity.” Maybe so, but it doesn’t work for us. We can’t step back. We have to force our way forward, and make sure that our work has the desired effect, achieves the proper results, does what we want it to do. Doing our work and stepping back sounds too much like sharpening the knife and getting out of the way. The knife cannot possibly find its own path.
We cannot trust our lives to be worth living on their own. What do our lives know? What does our “gift,” our “genius,” our “knack,” our “knife” know? Who does the grail serve? That’s the question we don’t permit ourselves to ask. We have been given “the gift” for the good of whom, of what? Who exactly is it who is to profit from our “knack”?
The easy assumption, of course, is that we are the ones. The grail serves US! WE are the ones who should profit from our “knack.” After all, it is OUR “knack”! The grail blesses US! And we make it our life’s goal to profit from our gift, talent, interest, genius.
Making ourselves the point of our lives misses the point of our lives. Our lives don’t serve us. The grail doesn’t serve us. But, we cannot grasp this fundamental concept. Egocentricity makes gods of us all. Even God serves us, saves us, loves us, is obsessed with us, and will do anything to get us to heaven. As it is with God, so it must be with the grail, and every other thing. Our benefit, our advantage, our profit, our best interest are what our lives are all about.
What’s the point of having a fine young stallion if you can’t ride him to the big time? Here’s the bad news: It isn’t ours to say what the purpose and function of the fine young stallion is. Our place, our role, is the care and feeding of the horse. We are stable hands. We sharpen the knife and get out of the way. We serve the grail.
Our problem is not how to make the gift work for us. It is not how to profit from our association with the horse (or the “knack,” or the “knife”). It is understanding what it means to sharpen the knife, to serve the grail. How do we honor our genius and allow it to find its own path? How do we hone our talent and get out of the way? I think it is done with silence, and awareness.
We empty ourselves of ambition and desire and wait in the silence for direction, for instruction, for the opening of the way. In the meantime, we take care of business. We do the work that is to be done—the work that is ours to do—and step back. And get out of the way. We pay the bills. We mow the lawn. We wash the dishes. We take out the trash. And, we wait, mindfully, with awareness, attending the things that arise in the silence, seeing into the heart of things and responding to what is needed in the moment it is needed, allowing the knife to find its own path.
And, when it begins to look as though we are wasting our lives, we look at that. We see into the heart of that, and respond as needed to that. What does it mean to “waste our lives”? What is wasteful? What is to make the most of our lives? What is the measure by which our lives are to be evaluated? The standard by which they—by which we—are to be judged? What are the qualities, the characteristics, of a worthy life? How shall we know, how shall we determine, if ours has been a good life—a good enough life? Or, one that is being “wasted”?
The master butcher is, after all, only a butcher. Is his life good enough? Good enough for whom? For what? How shall we decide what constitutes “good enough”?
I don’t know about you, of course, but for me, a good life is an integrated life, a life of integrity, a life that reflects, exhibits, those qualities that are integral with what is deepest, truest, and best about us. It has little to do with achievement and acquisition; little to do with power, position, possessions, and prosperity. It has everything to do with being aligned with the essential values—justice, compassion, peace, gentleness, generosity, kindness, transparency, authenticity, honesty, vulnerability, understanding, grace, joy, patience, self-discipline, empathy, and the like. It is living in synch with the things that are truly important; being grounded on the right foundation; living in right relationship with all beings and things. A butcher, living well, transforms the world.
So, we serve our talent. We practice our art. We hone our skills. And, we wait to see where that takes us. We ride the horse, but the horse finds the way. In the meantime, we exhibit the wonderful old values, and qualities, and characteristics that are essential to our life together. We enjoy what is to be enjoyed, and celebrate what is to be celebrated, and cherish what is to be cherished, and love what is to be loved. And let the life that unfolds around this kind of orientation, that coalesces around this kind of center, be our life.