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.