Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two

Nansen saw the monks of the Eastern and Western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks, "If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat." No one answered. So Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening Joshu returned, and Nansen related the incident. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out. Nansen said, "If you had been there, you could have saved the cat."

The koan is hard to accept. "Do not kill any being" is the first precept of Buddha's teaching; reverence for life is the first principle of Buddhism. Further a long tradition dictates that on any temple premise no one is killed, not even a mouse. If enemy soldiers or convicts flee to a temple, their lives are protected by sanctuary. But Nansen killed an innocent cat.

In Zen, enlightenment is of prime importance. Even at the price of life, a truth-seeker looks for the Way. The Way of Zen is a matter of life and death. If one finds the Way and dies - even that same evening - still his life is fulfilled.

If any of the monks had said an enlightened word or had done an enlightened deed, the cat's life would have been spared. But no one said anything, and Master Nansen did not compromise. When Joshu heard of the incident, he took off his shoes and put them on his head. How upside down! But if Joshu had been at the scene, he might have taken the knife from Nansen and demanded the Master's life. Cutting the cat! Such a thing cannot be tolerated. In the face of the truth of life there is no argument, no reason, only action.

The modern pragmatic mind and utilitarian philosophers do not understand Zen. Why do birds sing? Why do flowers bloom? They are life itself. Unless life is understood, this koan never will be.


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