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The Woodcarver

May 10, 2020

Khing, the master carver, 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 secrets. There is only this: When I began to think of the work you commanded, I guarded my spirit, 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 of 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 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.”

— A Taoist Tale


This Taoist tale is retold by Parker J. Palmer in his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life”. In the book, he shares ‘insights into how the Woodcarver’s tale illumines [his] life’, which he says, were found through speaking and listening in circles of trust.

This tale helped me reflect on my own life and I found his insights extremely valuable. Here are some insightful excerpts.

Excerpts:

  • Khing is under pressure to be concerned only about externals: the prince and his command, the product he is supposed to deliver, the tools and materials available to him, the way others evaluate his work. But he turns away from these externals toward inner truth - not to escape the world but to return to it in a way that will allow him to cocreate something of worth and beauty.

  • He makes this inward turn in a very stressful situation! The command to make the bell stand came from a prince who rules over a workplace that has no personnel handbook and no grievance procedure. Suppose Khing had messed up: the prince might have had him killed. Despite the fear he must have felt, Khing takes the Prince’s command and transforms it into a choice.

    (Of course, not all commands can or should be chosen: some should be resisted unto death! But sometimes I receive commands - from another person or from my life situation - that evoke something from me that I did not know I had. If I can embrace that kind of command and transform it into a choice, good things may happen.)

  • The woodcarver resists people’s efforts to name him from the outside in. With simplicity and clarity, he claims the right to name himself from the inside out. “I am only a workman: I have no secret”. When we fail to take this first, critical step of fending off projections and reserving the right to name our own truth, we become lost in eternal smoke and mirrors and cannot even find the trail head of the path into our inner lives.

  • Woodcarver knows that to do good work, he must deal with external constraints without compromising his inner freedom, letting these polarities flow into each other like the surfaces of a Mobius strip.

  • Khing’s silence on the technical aspects of his work: as important as they are, they are not the most challenging aspect of bringing truth and beauty into the world. The real challenge is the one Khing talks about: the formation of the human heart behind the skilful hand.