Nansen killing the cat, Zen Case #14 in The Gateless Barrier (1228 AD, China).

The love for cats can drive people mad. One day, there was a dispute at the Buddhist temple of Nansen Fugen Zenji. The monks of the Eastern and Western halls were having a quarrel over a small kitten. According to the original writings, the monks were disputing so fiercely that steam was rising from their heads. Really. But why?

In his celebrated novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion, writer Yukio Mishima mentions this Zen Case. It is read aloud by the protagonist’s temple superior on the day of Japan’s defeat in 1945. I will not – not now, at least – dwell on the symbolism behind his choice to make these two events coincide.

Back to the content of the story. What was this quarrel about? In Mishima’s account, the monks quarrel over which hall will get to keep the cat – its softness and plump paws melt the hearts of the monks, so much that “everyone wants to be with it day and night”. But as anyone with any knowledge of Zen might argue, Mishima is mistaken. According to true Zen scholars, the monks must have been disputing about whether or not the cat had a Buddha nature. Buddhists don’t argue about property.

When priest Nansen heard his monks quarreling, he cunningly hid a knife in his robe and went standing between the disputing parties. All of a sudden he grabbed the cat and said: “If anyone can say anything that matters, I will not kill it.” None of the monks stirred, so Nansen cut the screaming kitten in half. The original thirteenth century verse reads: “the sharp knife cut through and the image was lost.”

That night, Nansen’s chief disciple Jôshû came back from a journey. Nansen recounted what had happened and what he had seen fit to end the quarrel. He asked Jôshû for his opinion. Jôshû did not speak. Instead, he put his straw sandals on his head and quietly walked out.

Nansen then said: “Jôshû, if you only had been here, that cat would still have been alive! It was too bad that I had to kill it.”

This tale is used in Zen teachings to test a student’s progress in Zen practice. According to Zen priest Yamada Kôun Zenshin, Nansen carried out the authentic Buddhist command of cutting through all concepts and ideas. But by stopping there, Nansen leaves the job unfinished. When Jôshû puts the sandals on his head, he finishes it. How?

Cutting through the cat, Nansen cuts through all concepts and ideas. This way, he reveals the world of Mu or 無. Often mistakenly taken for a shopping cart, Mu stands for “not a single thing”, the word that makes us realize there is actually nothing at all. Nansen takes away the root of the quarrel by cutting through the small kitten. Because there is nothing.

But herein lies Nansen’s mistake: you cannot remain wandering in the world of Mu. No. You need to return to the ordinary world. If you linger in nothingness, it is impossible to reach enlightenment. That is exactly what Jôshû shows Nansen with his absurd action. Like a child on a forest trail plucking a flower, with nothing in his consciousness, he puts his sandals on his head and walks out. When having been to the world of Mu, you are supposed to return to the ordinary world with a free spirit. That is what Jôshû demonstrates. It is the step Nansen forgot to take.

Now when Nansen declares that the cat would still have been alive if only Jôshû had been there, I miss the point – no matter how much thought I have given it. The phrase remains a mystery to me. It doesn’t matter all that much, I guess.

But let me ask you a question: what do you think remains when everything worth reasoning about vanishes?

The answer to that question was not what I had come for. It was what it chose to show me.  To lift a corner of the veil: it’s true that there’s sound in the spheres. But that’s by far not the most important thing. Welcome to the Japan chronicles.

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