Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Cat Killer

The Cat Killer
by Scott Bradley


When I saw that the next case (14) in Aitken's presentation of the Mumonkan was about Nan-ch'uan killing the cat I immediately had two thoughts. The first was, Now I will hear some specious and convoluted justification for this gratuitous killing. The other was, I have the required 'word' to stop him: Harm that cat and I'll kick your ass! (Alas, I am not enlightened, have problems with authority, and have a special affection for cats.) As is usually the case, my negative expectations proved unfounded, though I got to enjoy the negativity in any case.

Here's the story in a nutshell: Nan-ch'uan, the head monk, discovers his two lieutenants arguing over a cat. He immediately grabs the cat, pulls out a knife (let's hope he was on the way to cut some chard for dinner), and declares: If someone doesn't say an appropriate word, I'm killing the cat! No one spoke, so he killed the cat. When Chao-chou, who had been out, returned and heard the story from Nan-ch'uan, he put his sandals on his head and walked away. "If you had been there," Nan-ch'uan called after him, "the cat would have been spared!"

In the case of the expected justification, Aitken only mentions that most commentators believe he only mimed killing the cat, and then says it doesn't matter as far as the point of the koan is concerned.

In the case of my appropriate word, I was gratified to read Wu-men's responding verse:

If Chao-chou had been there
he would have taken charge;
he would have snatched away the sword
and Nan-ch'uan would have begged for his life.

So, what's the point of this koan? There is no point we can truly verbalize, of course. Aitken suggests that it has to do, in part, with seizing every moment to teach, but I think that's mostly just using it as a homily. Decisive and spontaneous action does seem to have been involved here, however. Such action is, in the Zen way, a hallmark of the liberated mind. The only ones who lacked it were the two muted monks. Why?

I would suggest it was because their minds were still engaged in whatever pettiness it was that precipitated the incident in the first place. Think of them as still in the puppet booth, the narrow world of egoic involvement.

And then there is Chao-chou putting his sandals on his head. Aitken suggests this is a customary act of mourning (for the cat? for folly in the monastery?). It seems to me to demonstrate that the whole incident had turned the world on its head. The problem is perspectival. Do we view the world from our petty, egoic and insular selves, or have we hidden ourselves in the Vastness where the self need not cling to anything to be itself. We cannot do both, for the one excludes the other.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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