Thomas Merton described the Tao as “the simple good with which one is endowed by the very fact of existence. Instead of self-conscious cultivation of this good (which vanishes when we look at it and becomes intangible when we try to grasp it), we grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life.” The true “man of Tao” grows “without watching himself grow, and without any appetite for self-improvement.” The man of Tao takes in his surroundings, but without thinking about taking them in, more concerned about the “outer and other” than about himself.
Merton once recounted a famous Tao story by Chuang Tzu, called “The Woodcarver.”
At the request of a prince, a master carver named Khing made a bell stand that was so beautiful that the people ascribed it to the work of spirits. When the prince asked how he accomplished such a feat, 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. . . 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."
Khing's thought centered only on the bell stand, completely absorbed in the object. To enhance his ability to see the object, he fasted, an ascetic practice that shrinks the self and leaves the individual free to see the other and outer, freed from distortion of ego.
Essentially, Khing accomplished a masterpiece because he took no thought about completing a masterpiece. He was concerned only with creating the bell stand.
This Tao-like understanding of art and creation is not far different from Western understanding of art and creation. By putting aside self, the goodness of creation comes forth and the artist is able to see it, appreciate it, and, without distorting it in a whirlwind ego, puts it down on the canvas or page–or carve it out of a tree. In the words of Josef Pieper, the artist's is a “purely receptive stance toward reality, undisturbed by any interruption by the will.”