The Carver’s Tale

A wooden and gilded statue of the Buddha (bodhisattva) from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279)This I have heard: A monk who had a facility with tools came to the Upaya monastery where the master woodcarver named Wu worked at his trade. The monk approached the carver and requested that he be admitted as an apprentice. The master carver took him to the woodshed and showed him all the blocks of wood that he regarded as good for carving, and told him exactly why each had been selected. Then he sent the monk off to the forest to find a block of wood that would be suitable for carving a life-size figure.

After a time, the monk returned with a block. The master rejected it at once, saying: “The tree did not give it willingly. Spend a month or two here helping me to carve these roof-beams, then go back and look a second time.”

Again the monk ventured into the forest, and, after a time, returned with a block. When he placed the block in front of the master carver, the master knocked on the block and called out: “Are you in there?” at which a stream of insects exited from a knot-hole. Again, after a time, the monk returned into the forest.

The third block was too dense and knotty, the fourth too unyielding, and so on. The master accepted the twelfth block, and set the monk to work copying an ancient statue that stood in a side-chapel.

When the life-size carving was complete, the master looked it over. “You stopped too soon. You did not go deep enough. You must go deeper. Make it a little smaller, but use the same wood,” he said, and returned to his work.

The apprentice soon found that it is no easy matter to decrease the size of a cross-legged seated figure while retaining the wood. The new figure had to be quarter-size or less, seated where the rejected form’s belly was. The monk offered it to the master with trepidation. Would it be too small, or again wrong in some way? The master rejected it at once, with the same advice—cut deeper, go smaller.

Each carving became more sophisticated as it got smaller. After a few more rejections the apprentice offered an exquisite figure the size of his thumb. It too was turned away. The next few needed a glass to see. Eventually, the apprentice offered an empty tray. The master carver looked at it carefully. “You stopped too soon,” he said, “you did not go deep enough. You must go deeper.” The monk prostrated himself.

After some years he too became known as Master Wu, and his successors also, which complicates history by giving the impression that Wu lived two hundred years, which, in a sense, he did.

  1. I’ve read all the stories here and I think this one is my favourite although I very much like the last one as well. I’ve been enjoying the letters by Ingrid Jonker.

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