Woodcarving: What is your secret?

Over the next month, I’m going to be taking my blogging in a slightly different direction.  I’m going to be doing my best to document all the thought that goes into planning a course.  I’m doing in this in part for myself, to help make my thinking more rigorous.  I’m also trying to make plain what many teachers, including those I’ve mentored, have asked me if I could show them.  If you’re not a teacher, and a high school humanities teacher at that, there might be little of interest in the individual posts.  With that said, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see how I and other teachers spend our summer “vacation.”

Part of my inspiration for documenting this came out of the teacher leadership institute I attended last week.  During one of the sessions, we read the poem, “The Woodcarver,” which I’ve posted below the jump.  It really hit home for me how much of a ritual I have for planning.  There have been times when I, like the woodcarver, have found it difficult to express the thinking behind my planning.  Much like the woodcarver, my experience of what I end up doing in my classroom seems to appear to me.  But in reality, it’s because of the ritual of planning that I go through before each course, and then to a lesser degree, before each unit.  It’s this ritual that I hope to capture in the coming weeks.


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 secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about 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 fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or 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.”

– Chuang Tzu
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton


8 thoughts on “Woodcarving: What is your secret?

  1. Wonder if you have been reading Parker Palmer recently, since that tale is one of his favorites


  2. Haven’t read him, but the session where I got the poem was led by someone from his organization.


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