Thus spake the master of charcoal: "When the fire has been lit, it is too late to rearrange the charcoal."


A novice asked the master: "Here is a master that dumps his charcoal into his cooker without care. He never sorts his charcoal nor does he arrange it in his cooker. Yet all who know him consider him one of the best masters in the world. Why is this?"

The master replies: "That master has indeed mastered the Tao. He has gone beyond the need for sorting; he does not become angry when the fire goes out, but accepts the universe without concern. He has gone beyond the need for arranging his charcoal; each of his fires are perfect within themselves, serene and elegant, their purpose self-evident."

"Truly, he has entered the mystery of Tao."


There was once a master who was attached to the court of the warlord of Wu. The warlord asked the master: "Which is more difficult to build: a hot fire for grilling or a slow fire for overnight cooking?"

"A hot fire," replied the master.

The warlord uttered an exclamation of disbelief. "Surely building a hot fire is trivial compared to the complexity of building a fire that must burn all night without interruption," he said. "The hot fire will have adequate air flow and minimal ash buildup. The low fire may be extinguished due to ash accumulating and cutting off the flow of air!"

"Not so," said the master, "when using a hot fire, the master operates as a mediator between the heat of the fire and the cooking of the food. The food must be turned, the food must be moved on the grill, the food must be inspected. By contrast, a slow fire gently cooks the food which requires no turning, moving or examination. When building a low fire, the cook seeks the simplest harmony between fire and food. This is why building a low fire is easier."

The warlord of Wu nodded and smiled. "That is all good and well, but which is easier to control?"

The master made no reply.


Prince Wang observed a master building a fire. The master's fingers danced upon the pieces of charcoal, putting them in place. When lit, the fire burned without sparking or flashing, and the fire burned like a gentle breeze.

"Excellent!" the Prince exclaimed, "Your technique is faultless!"

"Technique?" said the master turning from his cooker, "What I follow is Tao - beyond all techniques! When I first began to build fires I would see before me the cooker, charcoal, flames, food, and smoke all in floating masses of confusion. After three years I no longer saw confusion. Instead, I saw a single blending of all these things into the spirit of the fire. But now I see nothing. My whole being exists in a formless void. My senses are idle. My spirit, free to work without plan, follows its own instinct. In short, my fire builds itself. True, sometimes there are difficult problems. I see them coming, I slow down, I watch silently. Then I make a tiny change in airflow and the difficulties vanish like puffs of idle smoke. I then let the fire burn. I sit still and let the joy of the fire fill my being. I close my eyes for a moment and then go to sleep."

Prince Wang said, "Would that all of my fire builders were as wise!"


There once was a master who dumped charcoal into his cooker without purpose or design. A novice, seeking to imitate him, also began to dump charcoal into his cooker without purpose or design. When the novice asked the master to evaluate his fire, the master criticized him for not carefully arranging his charcoal in his cooker before lighting his fire, saying, "What is appropriate for the master is not appropriate for the novice."

"You must understand the Tao before transcending structure."

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