Book of Serenity, Case 9 (adapted)

If we imagine that we have to excise our delusion, we are already divided. How can more cutting make us whole?

Book of Serenity, Case 9 (adapted)

The Case: Two sets of monks were arguing over a cat. Master Nansen, seeing this, held up the cat and said “If you can express something, I won’t cut it”

The monks said nothing. Nansen cut the cat in two.

That evening Nansen told Joshu what had happened. Joshu removed his sandals, put them on his head and left the room. Nansen said “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared”

Commentary: Dogen talks about this koan with Ejo in the Zuimonki. There’s no doubt that Dogen thinks that Nansen’s killing of the cat was regrettable, and he imagines, if he had been one of the monks, what he would have said in response to Nansen’s challenge. He says that he would have asked Nansen “Why don’t you cut the cat in one?” It’s such a brilliant remark that Ejo doesn’t understand it. The One-ness alludes to dependent origination obviously, both in terms of the cat, and in Nansen’s obligation as a teacher to unfragment his monks.

Both Nansen and the monks are caught: the monks are caught in duality: Because of their anxiety to say the ‘right’ thing to save the cat, true expression is impossible. But Nansen is trapped into carrying out his threat: unlike Joshu, his lack of flexibility necessitates him doing what he said he would: so we can’t say that if one of the monks had been like Joshu the cat would have been saved, because we can equally say that if Nansen had been like Joshu, the cat would have been saved too. Joshu demonstrates a deficiency in expression in both Nansen and the monks.

In Dogen’s remark, we can see a similarity with his interpretation of the polishing a tile story: activity and expression are two aspects of wholeness. Manjusri’s sword isn’t separating; it’s the whole active Universe expressing itself as a sword, as a cat, as undivided activity, as expression.

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