Saturday, October 18, 2008

Nanchuan's Cat

This picture is known to many cat-lovers-with-internet. It was taken in Jumping Cat Monastery in Myanmar (formerly Burma), famous for its "trained" cats, that is, cats who have trained the monks to give them treats if they merely jump through hoops. This piebald cat looks remarkably like Sherlock would look if he went on a starvation diet for a couple of years.

These monks are a different strain than the Japanese Zen I have studied. They live with and dine with these cats, and I don't doubt, meditate with them---cats are really good at meditating. These monks would never be part of what happens in a well-known Zen story/koan sometimes titled "Nanchuan cuts the cat in two."

Nanchu'an, an ancient teacher, gets sick and tired of the monks arguing about what the monastery cat's job ought to be. The brothers who work in the kitchen naturally want the cat to be a mouser, and protect the grain. The more ethereal students point out that the taking of life is forbidden, and claim that it is unethical for the monastery to support a killer. Nansen picks up the cat in one hand and a knife in the other hand, and says, "Unless someone can say one word of Zen, I will cut this cat in two."

Everyone is of course, dumbstruck. Because you can't capture reality in words. You can't explain Zen. It is all about not explaining, in fact.

The situation is made much, much worse by the idea that an abbot and Teacher is assumed to be always right, to be always teaching (a dangerous position to take with authority, as political and religious history, will bear out). I assume the silence lengthens while, stunningly, nobody goes and grabs the knife, frees the cat, and calls for a recount.

So, the story goes, Nanchuan cuts the cat in two. There is more to the koan, but this is where I part ways with it.

It is a gruesome tale, the sort of thing modern Zen scholars take pains to find some way to explain. The most optimistic approach is that it is not a real story, but a metaphor, though the fact is that in ancient (and modern) China, individual life was not nearly as valuable as communal harmony, and things than this could happen to people, as well as cats.

But the impossibility of this story fascinates me, as a cat lover, for I know a couple of things. One is, there is no cat in the world that is going to hang there compliantly while people decide to execute it to make a point. That ancient cat had not been declawed. I feel pretty sure Nanchuan would find that out the hard way, and I do enjoy contemplating that scene.

But I think there is a larger question. How can someone else tell that cat, any cat, what its job is? Let the cat alone and it will follow its nature. Unlike us, cats and dogs know their job, and do it faithfully. But for that matter, how can anyone else tell any of us who we are, and what our work ought to be?

This circles back to a point I keep touching on about abandoning our ideas about What Ought to Be, and instead, consulting our hearts. You don't have to be a grandmother to have a speaking heart, though the grandmothers I know agree, it helps.

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