One of the most famous koans in all of Zen literature is about a cat. Warning: it isn’t cute.
While Nanquan (the abbot) was away from the monastery, a quarrel arose between the monks of the east hall and west hall about a cat. When Nanquan returned and found the monks arguing, he held up the cat and said, “If one of you can offer a word of Zen, I will spare this cat; if no one can, I will cut it in half.” He was met with silence, and in a single stroke, he cut the cat in two.
Later, his disciple Zhaozhou, who had been absent for the whole thing, returned to the monastery and Nanquan told him the story, asking him, “What would you have done.” Zhaozhou put a slipper on his head and silently walked out of the room. Nanquan said after him, “If you’d been there, the cat would have lived.”
What on earth are we to do with a story like this?
In some corners of the Zen world, a koan is something to wrestle with, to tease apart or blow up or resolve. In most of the corners I’ve visited, however, they’re just teaching tools, stories to hold up and look at from all directions. Unsurprisingly, Zen practitioners have been examining—and arguing about—this particular story for a long, long time. Some commentaries insist there’s no way Nanquan actually killed the cat (he was a Zen master, after all); others say he really did. Some approach it all as pure symbolism, with the east and west halls serving as duality and Nanquan’s knife representing the sword of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who is always poised to cut through delusion. People have argued that Zhaozhou’s silent response is a silent rebuke of Nanquan, while others say he just resolved the problem by moving beyond a simple either/or. A few will say Nanquan’s a villain; most give him way more credit.
There’s no easy answer, and no one approach—that’s kind of the point. But any of us can pick up a story like this and try to make sense of it. We’re all qualified. That doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. But there may be a few right ones.
For now, though, I offer a piece of advice a koan teacher once offered to me: when you come across these kinds of stories, don’t try to watch them from the outside. Don’t treat it as a play, with the character Nanquan and the character Zhaozhou and all the supporting actors as angry monks. Instead, put yourself into the koan. Try on being Nanquan. Try on being Zhaozhou. Feel how it would feel to watch your teacher hold up that cat. Maybe start there.
The reason this koan is on my mind recently is our political scene—it’s hard to think of anything else. We have two opposing sides (or that’s how we like to talk about it). So that’s a first question: in this political moment, do you feel you’re part of a story in which there are only two options? For the monks of the east hall, there was but one solution (we don’t actually know what the argument was about, but I’ve heard teachers speculate that both sides just wanted the cat as their pet); for the monks of the west hall, the only good outcome was the opposite. That stance isn’t hard for me to imagine at all.
Then what about Nanquan? Putting aside the question of his skillfulness or the ethics of what he did, he saw the scene and believed he knew better than the quarrelling monks—not only that, but he also believed he could teach them a lesson. I’ve been there, too. I’ve watched the news and thought to myself, “But what nobody seems to understand is ____.” But when I think that way, am I right? How am I to know? And as for Nanquan, did he teach them a lesson? Maybe, but for some of those monks, it may not have been the lesson he intended.
And Zhaozhou: how are we to understand his silence, the slipper on the head, the exit? Nanquan, in one way, seems to be dealing in relative truth—the monks are arguing about a cat, so he makes an example of the cat itself. Zhaozhou appears to be working on a different level. Does he see a different truth in this, something bigger than the crisis at hand? I don’t know if I do, either. But I do know that when I sit, when I settle into my posture and my breath, I feel I inhabit a world in which binaries are less clearly defined, one in which I can contain more than just my opinions and my personal hopes for what happens next. I don’t know what Zhaozhou is doing in that moment, but I sense that for him there’s a clarity—and an openness—in it that we would all be lucky to have.
However we interpret this koan, there’s a message about not getting stuck in a simple story, one that rests on just this or just that. As practitioners, we can and should explore that, and the actions that come from that, with pressing curiosity. That’s part of it. And while we do that, while we hold that spacious complexity, we can balance it with the straightforward work of being citizens. We can vote. We can offer our voices—that “one word”—even if we don’t know if it’s the one that saves the cat or not.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
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