The Woodcarver


Tzu, Chuang




Little is known about the life of Chuang Tzu, a renowned and influential Chinese Taoist philosopher who lived during the fourth century BCE. According to legend, he refused King Wei of Chou’s offer to promote him from a minor administrative post to chief minister, saying that he preferred to remain free.  In “The Woodcarver,” a master carver named Khing makes a bell stand so astonishing that everyone who sees it concludes that it must have been made by spirits. Asked for his secret, Khing says that he has neither secret nor method; instead, after an intensive process of preparation, “the right tree” revealed itself to him, the bell stand already within it.  

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The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.  New Directions, 1965.


Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.


Wisdom and ContemplationWork and Vocation

Big Questions

How can contemplation change our actions?What do we hope to learn from meditation or contemplation?What do we learn from silence?What does it look like to be truly present?Is work a way to a goal or its own reward?What do I hope my work accomplishes?What does it mean to have a “calling”?


Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Close your eyes for a moment and picture the woodcarver's bell stand. What do you see?
  2. Why is everyone who sees the bell stand astounded? Why do they believe it must be "the work of spirits"?
  3. How does Khing prepare to carve the bell stand? What does he have to forget in order to do the work?
  4. What precedes the act of choosing "the right tree"? Why does the bell stand's existence hinge on Khing's encounter with "this particular tree"?
  5. What does this poem suggest about the nature of mastery?
  6. What does the phrase "hidden potential," used by Khing about the wood he carves, mean to you in relation to your work?
  7. What do you need to let go of in order to do your work well?
  8. From what "live encounter" does your creativity in service come?
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