One day in master Nansen’s temple two group of monks were arguing over a cat. Nansen came across them, grabbed the cat and said, ‘if you can say one true word about the cat I won’t kill it.’ The monks were silent and Nansen cut the cat in two.
This koan story also appears as case 14 in ‘The Gateless Gate,’ which was compiled about 100 years after ‘The Blue Cliff’ record and which has a coda. In that coda, Master Joshu, who is Nansen’s successor, has been away whilst this incident happened. Master Nansen relates the incident to him and Nansen says, ‘what would you have said?’ Joshu without saying anything, takes off his sandals, puts them on his head and walks out. Nansen approvingly says, ‘if you had been there the cat would have been saved.’
Dogen comments extensively on this Koan in the ‘Zuimonki,’ where he imagines himself in the position of Nansen and the position of the monks.
In the position of Nansen, he would actually sharpen the monk’s dilemma by saying to them, ‘whether or not you can say a true word, I will cut the cat.’ But then the teaching purpose having been served, he would simply let the cat go.
From the position of the monks he would have challenged Nansen by saying ‘you can cut the cat in two but why don’t you cut the cat in one?’ From this brilliant proposition we can see why Dogen says that Nansen cuts the cat in two with the sword.The other stories refer to a knife or don’t say how the cat was cut. However, so far as a sword is concerned, the only ‘person’ in the monastery likely to have a sword is Manjushri ( The Bodhisattva of wisdom) whose statue we usually find on the altar.
Manjushri is wielding the sword which cuts delusion. From Dogen’s perspective the cutting of delusion is the restoration of wholeness. Manjushri is mounted on a lion, a very big cat.
Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom, but ‘wisdom’ is something of a misnomer because what is translated as wisdom is – prajna – pre-knowing which is equivalent to -hishiro – before thinking or beyond thinking that we were talking of previously. The point Dogen is making is that by making the cat an object, both the monks and arguably Nansen have already cut the cat in two; because they have created the cat as an object of thought and discrimination in the world, and the restoration of the wholeness of prajna is what cuts the world and the cat into one.
Once Ejo asked: “What is meant by the expression: ‘Cause and effect are not clouded’?”
Dogen said: “Cause and effect are immovable.”
Ejo asked: “If this is so, how can we escape?”
Dogen replied: “Cause and effect emerge clearly at the same time.”
Ejo asked: “If this is so, does cause prompt the next effect, or does effect bring about the next cause?”
Dogen said: “If everything were like that, it would be like Nan-ch’uan cutting the cat. Because the assembly was unable to say anything, Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in two. Later, when Nan-ch’uan told this story to Chao-chou, the latter put his straw sandal on his head and went out, an excellent performance. If I had been Nan-ch’uan, I would have said: ‘Even if you can speak, I will cut the cat, and even if you cannot speak, I will still cut it. Who is arguing about the cat? Who can save the cat?’”
Dogen, Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 1.6[ 1 ]
Zen Buddhism has often been attacked as an amoral, even immoral, religious tradition. In support of such claims, critics sometime cite anecdotes wherein a Zen Master’s action is clearly immoral by conventional moral standards, such as the following passage from the Mumonkan titled “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two”:
Nansen Osho [Chin: Nan-ch’uan] saw monks of the Eastern and Western halls quarreling over a cat. He held up the cat and said, “If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it.” No one could answer, and Nansen cut the cat in two.
That evening Joshu [Chin: Chao-chou] returned, and Nansen told him of the incident. Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head, and walked out. “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat,” Nansen remarked.[ 2 ]
True story or not, this koan does pose a challenge to those who would defend Zen Buddhism against its moralistic critics. As we shall see, in his appropriation of this koan, Dogen’s own moral vision becomes manifest.
In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen sets out his interpretation of the Koan (Sotozen article)
Nan Ch’uan Kills a Cat (Blue Cliff Record Case 63)
Where the road of ideation cannot reach, that is just right to bring to attention; where verbal explanation cannot reach, you must set your eyes on it quickly. If your thunder rolls and comets fly, then you can overturn lakes and topple mountains. Is there anyone in the crowd who can manage this? To test, I cite this to see.
At Nan Ch’uan’s place one day the (monks of) the eastern and western halls were arguing about a cat. (1) When Nan Ch’uan saw this, he then held up the cat and said, “If you can speak, then I will not kill it.” (2) No one in the community replied; (3) Nan Ch’uan cut the cat into two pieces.(4)
1. It’s not just today that they’re haggling together. This is a case of degeneracy.
2. When the true imperative goes into effect, the ten directions are subdued. This old fellow has the capability to distinguish dragons from snakes.
3. What a pity to let him go. A bunch of lacquer tubs-what are they worth? Phoney Ch’an followers are as plentiful as hemp and millet.
4. How quick! How quick! If he hadn’t acted like this, they would all be fellows playing with a mud ball. He draws the bow after the thief has gone. Already this is secondary; he should have been hit before he even picked it up.
(From the Blue Cliff Record)
Incidentally, the coda in the story about Joshu putting his sandals on his head and walking out doesn’t appear in the Blue Cliff Record. It does appear in The Gateless Gate, which was compiled about a century later (early 1200s). The first case in TGG is Joshu’s Mu koan, which curiously doesn’t appear in the BCR, although there are quite a few other koans from Joshu. One can only infer the influence of Dahui, whose active career was between the two, and who invented koan zen as we recognize it today ( and who was a contemporary and friend of Hongzhi, who we talked about last week)
Have you noticed reference to a single cut coming up elsewhere? One place is at the start of the Heart Sutra when describing Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’ deep practice of praja paramitta seeing the five skandhas as empty, then the phrase 度一切苦厄 – do issai ku yaku – usually translated as something like ‘passing beyond, saving all beings from suffering’. This translation doesn’t mention precisely the characters issai which literally means single cut or slice, but can also means everything or entirety. I think here the action of Avalokiteshvara making a single cut, while/due to the practice of prajna paramitta, connects all things and is saving all beings. So I wonder how much the drama in the koan with the single cut to a vulnerable living being, the cat, (and Dogen in his commentary) is working with this idea, and I see it can connect to your explanation John related to Manjusri’s wisdom/ prajna, and perhaps the intuitive ‘before thinking’ type of prajna practice of zazen described in the Heart Sutra.
I’ve not found the kanji characters in the Chinese original of this case, might be interesting to have a look.
Here is the original Chinese if that helps, Blair.
That’s fantastic thank you Mark, from my limited knowledge of kanji I can see the 一刀兩段 ittouryoudan (Japanese pronunciation) – one slicing action which jisho.org defines as ‘cutting in two with a single stroke; taking decisive (drastic) measure’
That certainly ties in 🙂