Case 14 Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two
Nansen Oshõ saw monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat.
He held up the cat and said, "If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill i
No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in t
That evening Jõshû returned, and Nansen told him of the inciden
Jõshû took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked 。
"If you had been there, you would have saved the cat," Nansen remarked.
Tell me, what did Jõshû mean when he put the sandal on his head?
If you can give a turning word on this, you will see that Nansen's decree was carried out with good reason.
If not, "Danger!"
Had Jõshû been there,
He would have done the opposite;
When the sword is snatched away,
Even Nansen begs for his life.
Here we have one of the most important koans in this collection. Of course all the koans are important but this is not just another samadhi koan. This koan tests more then the depths of one's samadhi. This koan is about how the individual has truly matured as an individual through the years of practice.
The story of this koan is a bit gruesome. I don't know if it is true or made up. It has the ring of the story of Solomon and the baby which in slight variation occurs in many cultures. To us it doesn't matter if it is true or false. Don't let it's gruesomeness put you off. And if you think that any true Zen Master would never kill a cat, don't be so sure.
Generally animals were not allowed in Chinese Zen buddhist monasteries. It was thought that their karma would interfere with practice. But cats were different. Often a cat or two was kept in a monastery to keep away the mice. We see how even a single cat can disrupt a monastery. In S.E. Asia there is a very different idea. Stray and abandoned animals are welcome on monastery grounds and the monks feed and take care of them. The Buddha emphasized compassion and loving kindness with respect to all life. It is said that as he walked he hit his walking stick on the ground to warn all the little creatures to get out of the way. Theravada Buddhists take this teaching to heart in taking care of stray animals.
But Zen Monasteries are different and Zen can seem dry and unemotional. The emphasis in Zen has always been on the outside, meditation, not emotion. Even the Bodhisattva Vows that we recite includes this vow.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
We seem to disavow the underpinning of desire which guides our emotions. Can we even separate emotions like love and compassion from our desire for the welfare of family, friends, and the larger society? And then we have the this idea of Emptiness which seems to permeate Zen thought. We strive to understand this term, to see the world and those in it as empty. Where is there love and compassion in this?
Zen is not about following some idea of what the Buddha taught but instead to actually experience that same Awakening the Buddha experienced and them become buddhas ourselves. And then having become a buddha function with that same love and compassion as the Buddha. The very process demands that to have a Great Awakening demands we drop all ideas of how we should act and things should be, even Buddhist ideas. We say "Kill the Buddha" and that is exactly what we must do. I have many friends who are fellow practitioners who have been unable to drop their deep moral convictions. They have brought their deep moral conviction into their practice to in effect create a personal Buddhism, which is just fine, but it is not actually Zen. To experience a Great Awakening we must drop even our deepest held moral convictions and our deepest attachments to family and friends, and even our attachment to our own lives. We must drop everything. Then in zazen we drop our thinking and die. This is not a physical death but a death to our idea of our own individuality. It is really just the shutting down of our habitual thinking so that we can see the world clearly. What we see is a world without separation and that our idea of our own individual self is an illusion. But also with this experience is great feeling. Our emotions are liberated and we are filled with love and compassion. This is not just the love and compassion that is limited to family and friends and stray animals. It is something else, it has no boundaries. One can't even call it one's own love because now we are seeing with the Universe's eyes and thus are experiencing the Universes Love. This is the activity of Avalokitishvara the Bodhisattva of Compassion acting through a seemingly individual body.
Those fellow monks caught in thoughts were unable to act. The cat was doomed. If Joshu had been there things would have turned out differently we are told. How do we know? Well he put his shoes on his head and walked out the door. Strange behavior. Not really, back then in China this was a sigh of morning. The eventual outcome of all our practice is not to just overcome all our anxieties and fears, it is not to become free in our actions and thoughts, it is not even to become happy. It is to become a conduit for the activity of Avalokitishvara the Bodhisattva of Universal Love and Compassion.