Sunday, July 10, 2011


Are you familiar with the Zen kōan ‘Nansen kills a cat’? If not, let’s ‘pass’ it now! It goes like this:

The monks of the eastern and western Zen halls were quarrelling about a cat. Nansen held up the cat and said, ‘Monks, if one of you can say a word, I’ll spare the cat. If you can't, I’ll put it to the sword.’ No one could respond so Nansen finally slew it. When Jōshū came back in the evening, Nansen told him what had happened. Jōshū, took off his straw sandals, put them on top of his head and left. Nansen said, ‘If you had been there I could have spared the cat’ (Mumonkan, Case 14).

The kōan is in two parts. The first part concludes with the words, ‘... so Nansen finally slew it.’ Let’s look at the first part first. (‘First things first,’ after all!)

So, the monks of the two halls – note the sense of ‘duality’ in that – are quarrelling ... about a cat. Are we not like those monks? Arguing about something as ordinary as a cat? (It has been suggested by some commentators that the monks may have been arguing about something supposedly more important ... like, whether the cat had buddha-nature ... but it doesn’t really matter. They were arguing ... and getting nowhere fast.)

We are told that each person has their own particular ‘story’ ... their own version of truth. This is supposed to lead to less quarrelling, but all it has led to is more subjectivism, relativism, dualism ... and quarrelling!

Worse, we quarrel, not just amongst ourselves, but also within our own minds. We live in internal discord and dis-ease. There is, for example, the ‘me’ that wants to work, and the ‘me’ which doesn’t. There is the ‘me’ that wants to exercise, and the ‘me’ which doesn’t. There is the ‘me’ that wants to smoke, and the ‘me’ which doesn’t. There is the ‘me’ that believes all life is one, and the ‘me’ which thinks that ‘I’ am separate from ‘you’, and so forth. Yes, the ‘I’ engages in seemingly endless internal dialogue with the hundreds of warring ‘me’s’ which we mistakenly take for our supposedly real ‘self’.

In the kōan no-one could ‘say a word’ which could put an end to the quarrelling. Does that come as a surprise to you? Can words really solve things? Come now. So Nansen kills the cat with a single stroke of his sword. A violent act. In many ways, quite unBuddhist ... despite the famous admonition, ‘If you meet the Buddha, kill him’ (which is very sound advice) ...but don’t take the kōan too literally. Nansen effects a dramatic end to all the useless arguing.

We must do likewise! Not literally kill the cat, but put an end to the constant toing and froing in our conscious minds. Yes, we must cut off all mindless thinking, and ‘still’ the mind so that it simply observes ... rather than rushing hither and thither, and going back and forth, endlessly and mindlessly. The regular practice of mindfulness is perhaps the most effective way of ‘slaying the cat’.

Now, let’s look at the second part of the kōan. What is the meaning of Jōshū’s putting his straw sandals on top of his head? At least one important commentator has referred to the old Chinese practice of putting one’s sandals on one’s head as a show of mourning. Maybe. Whatever it ‘means’, it is simply Jōshū’s spontaneous Zen-like response to the story.

Most commentators assert that both Nansen and Jōshū wield swords, even though there is no specific mention of Jōshū carrying, let alone wielding, a sword. Yes, it is said that Nansen wields the sword that kills, while Jōshū wields a sword that ... gives life! That’s right. Nansen's sword cuts through all thought and all notions of dualism while Jōshū’s sword leads the way forward. Jōshū shows how we are to live in a ‘place of no-thought’. We must act. How very Zen!

Now this is ‘clever’. We are the cat. The cat is the non-existent sense of self which must be slain. If the kōan is to be ‘solved’ Nansen must not only kill the cat but also himself, the monks, and ourselves as well. We are the cat ... and Nansen ... and also Jōshū! Amazing stuff, this Zen.

Whether in the course of formal mindfulness meditation or going about our daily lives, we will encounter mental ‘traffic’ of all kinds. What are we to do? Become an active participant – indeed, the ‘star’ – of our own ‘mental movie’? That’s so easy to do, isn’t it? No, just ‘observe’, ‘note’, and (if necessary) ‘label’. See the mental ‘traffic’ for what it really is ... just the noise of old monks arguing. Become aware, once again, of your breath. Then put your ‘straw sandals’ on top of your head ... and do what needs to be done in your daily life. If you do that – that is, act mindfully – then, as Nansen said in the kōan, the cat can be spared.

‘Nansen kills a cat.’

1 comment:

  1. let the cat die with dignity, let it commit seppuku.