Just a Craftsman

We live in the age of self-expression. It seems being opinionated and assertive is a virtue. Various self-help and success philosophies teach us to aim high. We seek and praise our heroes, artists, celebrities, iconic figures, and more. Even in the field of prayer and humility, there is such a term as celebrity pastor.

Even when we study history, knowing historical figures is the major part. Our human history is a set of knowledge that consists of names and events. It must be, however, a small tip of the vast iceberg. Our human history is a series of countless anonymous people who live and die. While we could never trace their names, their contributions must be tremendous.

There are such people that we never know their names; nevertheless, we can feel a sense of awe.

For example, I often get fascinated with various icon paintings. One reason is its difference from modern art. If contemporary artworks are a means of self-expression, then, the principle of icon paintings is the complete opposite.

Icon painters have to remain anonymous. They should never consider their works as a means of self-expression. Religious, sacred arts are mostly in this principle one way or another. Icon paintings are stricter at this point.

When I heard this principle, ironically, I felt a sense of awe. Icon painting is not self-expression but prayer and contemplation; no room for modern individualism.

There is the profound value of anonymity. By purely focusing on shapes, colors, and contexts anonymously, we could sense the subtleness of something greater. With it, everyone has to be humble and must forget ourselves.

It reminds me of one anecdote by Zhuangzi.

There was a woodworker, Qing. Everyone loved his crafts as if these were the works of gods and spirits. One time, appreciating a marvelously crafted bell stand, the Marquis of Lu visited Qing and asked the secret of his art, praising that Qing must be one of the great artists.

Qing said, however, he was just a craftsman, not an artist. He did not have any secrets. If ever there would be art, then Qing hesitantly explained:

There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated, and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go. This way I am simply matching up ‘Heaven’ with ‘Heaven.’ That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.


Qing explained his fasting. The purpose for doing it is still his mind, diminish his thought of congratulations or rewards, of title or stipends, and even forget himself entirely.

By completing his fasting days, Qing could eventually enter the state of right flow. He was no longer crafting his work by himself. There was a pure crafting experience, merely matching up Heaven with Heaven. Being a mere craftsman, he prayed and contemplated through a sacred work of art.

Images by riteshphotography; by Günther Simmermacher; by Toản Dương

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