"Nansen Kills the Cat", the 14th koan in the Mumonkan, is deservedly famous. Nansen comes upon the monks of the Eastern and Western Halls disputing over a cat. He snatches it up, takes up a knife, and says, "Give me a word of Zen and I will spare it; fail and I will kill it!" The monks sat dumb and Nansen killed the cat.
The last time I commented on this story I suggested: "Harm that cat, and I'll kick your ass!" This, I explained, was because I have anger issues and have a special affection for cats. But it probably wouldn't have saved the cat, in any case, which is instructive in itself.
It is not known what this dispute was about. Zenkei and others suggest it might have been over some arcane point of doctrine, but if we go that way it's too easy to see the sacrifice of the cat as somehow a continuation of that argument by way of a dramatic conclusion. I suspect it was simply a question of the monks from both halls having become attached to the cat and wishing to claim it. Solomon would have threatened to cut it in half, and somehow I think Nansen was doing the same.
I mentioned that this koan is famous. This is in part, no doubt, because it hits us viscerally. If Nansen has forgotten ahimsa and respect for all life, we have not. We care for the cat. There is a moral issue at stake here. Say that, however, and the knife would have plunged for sure.
We are asked for a good word of Zen that would save the cat; what might that be? The monks had no time for reflection, and this is how it is meant to be with Zen monks, but we have a koan upon which to meditate, so reflect we can. Perhaps the place to begin is to ask why we should wish to save the cat in the first place. Because we love it; we do not wish to see it suffer; it has as much a right to live as we do; it is morally wrong to kill needlessly. Any expression of these sentiments, however, and the cat would surely die. Why? Because Nansen would have us transcend our so-called moral judgments. He would have us realize that place where we care no more for cats, compassion, or right and wrong. And having arrived there, he would have us return here to caring for the cat and expressing a good word to save it.
Joshu happened by later and Nansen told him what had happened. He immediately put his sandals on his head and left. "You would have saved the cat!" Nansen shouted after him. Apart from "this is a lot of absurdity", what did this gesture mean? Perhaps he was speaking to the need to turn things on their head so as to allow a transforming view. The true way to care for the cat is that which first knows what it is to not care at all.
After reflection, I might have tried one of these: “Kill it!” (I don’t care; yet, because I do, my word of command stays your hand. How could you obey?) “Kill us all!” (Why just the cat? There is no difference between us. We are no less dispensable.)
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