THE MEAT CUTTER’S APPRENTICE: From the Collected Stories of the Intimate Way

THE MEAT CUTTER’S APPRENTICE: From the Collected Stories of the Intimate Way November 18, 2019




The Meat Cutter’s Apprentice

James Ishmael Ford

Once upon a time, long ago and quite far away…

There was a young man named Raw Silk. Since adolescence Raw Silk found he burned with a desire to know God. After some struggles, there briefly was a romantic interest, and there were the constant demands of his family’s shop, he finally determined to become a monastic as the best way to enter the intimate way.

He told his mother his plan. She replied, “Dear one, we desperately need you right now. Your father is terribly ill, and I need you to help keep our shop open, while I tend to him.” The shop was small and offered necessities to people in the village in which they lived. Not only was it the family’s livelihood, it was a critical part of what tied the village together.

Raw Silk was reluctant. He burned with his desire to live into the intimate way. And, felt trapped by his familial obligations. Still, he had obligations. So, he agreed to wait. But only for a little while. He noticed his mother’s relief and felt a little rush of shame.

He took over the shop, managed the inventory, and assisted customers. His mother took care of his father.

The days become weeks and finally his father recovered. Although it was plain to anyone who looked the old man was not the same person as before this last illness. He moved slowly and he had trouble focusing. It was clear he wouldn’t be returning to the shop, except to sit in the sun and greet customers.

Still, Raw Silk went to his mother and said, “I’ve stayed until father recovered. That was my promise. I have to go. I have to go now.”

He could see his mother’s distress at his words. But she said nothing beyond packing some food and giving him her blessing.

He went into the courtyard, shaved his head and with then with the clothes he wore and a light blanket for a cloak, taking the small bag of food, and, of course, that blessing, he departed.

Raw Silk walked some miles from the village, much farther than he’d ever wandered from home before. There he found a place near a stream where he could make a hut of reeds. It was little more than a lean-to, but it felt sufficient for his need. He sat down with a begging bowl beside the road and meditated.

While his native village was too small to support a full-time priest, one would visit on her rounds among a half dozen villages. And she’d taught him the fundamental practice of the intimate way when he was fourteen and first asked how to meditate. He took up that practicing sitting upright with his legs crossed. Raw Silk placed his hands in his lap. He left his eyes slightly open while he breathed naturally. For the first two years after receiving instructions he had counted his breaths, but once his quiet presence was more common than his wandering thoughts the priest counseled him to stop counting. She had said he might bring curiosity to his presence. But she never elaborated on what that meant.

Finally, a monastic himself, and now dedicated to the practice, he found it was hard.  Before he sat half an hour a day, most days. Sometimes he had spent an hour or so. But, never more. Now it was his entire day. Or, all tha wasn’t taken up with his very basic necessities. When his mind wandered as it did with distressing regularity, he imagined himself, some part of himself, a shepherd taking a switch and driving his mind back to presence. He found his concentration growing.

Not many people put food into his bowl. And gradually he lost weight. He also found himself getting angry. He resented the way his family clung to him as he wanted to leave. He resented the passersby who ignored his efforts on behalf of the whole world, and rarely made the slightest effort to help keep him alive despite his having committed to the great quest not only for his own sake but for the whole world.

He found he resented his childhood. He resented the rich. And the poor. In the pit of that resentment he discovered a burning quality. It seemed as if everything was clear within that fire.

As his rib bones began to become more pronounced, one day he looked up at a flight of crows and he stared at one, he was certain it faltered, and nearly fell to the ground. He averted his gaze but, he felt the power. He realized he had a gaze that could kill. And he felt glad.

He decided it was time to go into the city. The road was long and dusty and so he paused just outside the gates at a tea shop. He was tired and hungry. He was used to being tired. He never got used to being hungry. The woman tending the shop saw him, and said, “Young monastic. Pause, a moment. Let me give you some tea.” He gratefully accepted her offer. She even gave him a small cake, which he tried not to gobble down. He thanked, her and resumed his walk into the city.

However, he’d not taken more than two or three steps before he heard her say “Such a fine young monk. Too bad he takes off that way.” A flash of anger swept over him, and he turned with his fire gaze. She looked at him and laughed. “You think you can burn me with your eyeballs?”

He was immediately ashamed, and said, “I am sorry. Clearly you are a teacher. I think maybe the one I need. May I apprentice myself to you?”

She replied, “You have promise. But, not me. Not yet.  You need more work, first. So, go into the city and find the meat cutter’s district. There you’ll find Meat Cutter Graceful. He’s one of my dharma successors. And, I think the right person for you at this moment.”

Raw Silk was appalled. A butcher? Killing was a cardinal sin on the Intimate Way. And butchery was not one of the harmonious trades. It was only just allowed in countries where the intimate way was followed, and only because the teachings called for a broad tolerance.

The tea lady observed his hesitation. “What’s your problem, boy? Haven’t you learned the secrets of bowing?” He felt his face grow hot and the fire gaze coming over him. The tea lady saw this and laughed derisively. Ashamed Raw Silk made a bow, turned and entered the city.

Raw Silk had never seen so many people in his life. Everything was crowded and the smells of people and things was almost overpowering. He had to pause and ask for directions three times, but finally he made his way to Graceful the Meat Cutter’s shop. He entered and told the butcher that the tea lady had sent him, with a flush of shame he realized he’d not asked her name. He choked. And then said in a hoarse voice that he hoped he could become Graceful’s apprentice.

Graceful was a large man. Actually he was a bear of a man. While it appeared that he shaved every morning, nonetheless had a beard before evening. He held up a cleaver in a meaty hand, small hairs curling over the back of that hand, and extending to his fingers. “See this, boy?” He turned the cleaver around. “I’ve used it for ten years. And yet it never needs sharpening.” He ran a finger over the edge of the blade.  “Most people simply see the cleaver and a slab of meat. I see the whole animal just as it is. And, I take this knife and I follow the way things are. The blade slides between the spaces and the body simply falls apart.”

The young monastic thought maybe the tea woman was right. This might be his teacher. He replied, “I’m ready to learn, sir.”

“Good,” the butcher replied. “The first thing you can do is take this cleaver and sharpen it on the whetstone.” The boy didn’t know what to say. But trying hard to bow, he took the knife and made his way to the back of the shop where he found the stone and sharpened the cleaver for his teacher.

Days passed into weeks. Weeks turned into months. He faithfully watched the meat cutter, as he cut meat, as he attended to customers, as he dealt with small and great matters. Raw Silk slowly forgot the fire gaze. And instead he found an appreciation of whomever and whatever he encountered. Everyone ate. And nearly everyone came through the shop. Good people. Bad people. Rich people. Poor people. Men. Women. The third gender. Merchants, teachers, and occasionally priests.

And, he watched Graceful the meat cutter. Perhaps the knife was sharpened. And, well, it was. Every day. But, the butcher did wield it with an unusual grace. And, care. It was in fact that care which seemed so important. Graceful was fiercely honest. And he was generous with the poor, making sure they not only were given meat from the leavings of his work, but on occasion even some particularly delicious cuts.

Out of this Raw Silk wondered, what is the great lesson? Why am I here? I’ve unlearned so much. What is it that I am to learn?

He remembered the priest’s advice to bring curiosity to presence. And he did. Not so much as asking why this or that, but with a sort of attention that grew naturally, and with a gaze that no longer tried to be fierce, but one that cared.

Finally, the day came. He had swept the floor and wiped down the counters and they opened the door to the shop. He was in the back of the shop when he heard someone come in the door. Someone, he didn’t know the voice, asked, “Please give me the best piece of meat that you have.” His teacher, the master Graceful responded to the unknown shopper, “Every piece of meat I have is best.”

With this Raw Silk finally awakened to the mysteries of the intimate way.

Later, he expressed his infinite gratitude to the meat cutter. And said he knew it was time to return to the tea lady. He then left and gave his humble thanks to the old woman. She responded, “It took you long enough.” For a flitting moment he thought this was his approval and authorization.

Whatever the truth of that matter, she asked him, where did you come from originally? He realized it was a test, it was the great question, and that it was tied up intimately with that great lesson of every piece of meat. And, he said, I come from a village some thirty miles from here.

She smiled. And, said, go there, take care of your parents, tend the store, and teach the intimate way.

And he did.

(Full acknowledgement, and endless debt to the teachings of the Ramayana, the Chuangtzu, and that wonderful story of Banzan’s awakening, each weaving into this small story. May it help all who seek the truth of the intimate way…)

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