Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cat Zen: Revisited

A few Buddhist bloggers have done retrospective postings of popular old posts and people seemed to enjoy it. Obviously, it gives the writer a break, while offering newer readers a chance to see something they didn't see the first time. (I often wonder if anyone ever digs through the archives of this blog, or any blog, beyond a few weeks back. I've done it on a few blogs, and found it delightful, but it's a rare practice even for me.)

Anyway, I'm going to take up the theme of "On this day one year ago," and offer you the post I wrote May 9th, 2009. Happy Mother's Day!

This is a photo I took of my mother's cat, Baby Jesus. Now, just where exactly the name came from, I'm still not sure. My mother isn't Christian, nor does she really have a lot of interest in Jesus, as far as I know. She told me the name just came to her, and really, maybe that's just how it was - things seem to come to us when we pay attention closely.

Now, Baby Jesus, also known as "the resurrected animal," has in some ways outgrown the baby. He's a big cat, probably weighing in at close to twenty pounds. He's very much a dominant presence in the house in a way a kitten can never be. He lounges effortlessly, leaps often, and attends to laps like an expert physician attends to surgery.

I have long thought that cats are good roles models for us muddling, sometimes meddling humans. Having lived with cats most of my life, and having experienced the cats of many friends and family over the years, I really think that, for the most part, cats are good at expressing and living out their catness.

Even though there are as many different personalities as there are cats in the world, there seems to be a directness and clarity that cats naturally have, and which people spend often entire lifetimes trying to cultivate. Emotions are expressed easily; actions are done without tons of calculating and over-analyzing. And anyone who has ever lived with a cat, or spent any significant time with one, knows that cats can focus their attention on something (a mouse, a bird, a fluttering dust bunny) and keep it there for a very long time, often without moving. They seem to have object-based meditation down pat, even if there is an end goal in mind (catch the moving object, eat the moving object, etc.)

Cats also have had their role in zen literature, most famously perhaps in the koan of Nanchuan's Cat. Here's the case, along with Mumon's comment and poem.

"Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: 'If you can say a word of zen, you will save the cat.' No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozho returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozho removed his sandals, paced them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said, "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat."

Mumon's comment: Why did Zhaozho put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this question, you will understand exactly that Nanchuan's action was not in vain. If not, danger!

Mumon's poem:

Had Zhaozho been there
He would have taken charge.
Zhaozho snatches the sword
And Nanchuan begs for his life.

There is so much that could be talked about in this. And so many landmines I could step on in talking about any of it.

But one thing I have always found so intriguing is this business of silence on the part of the monks in response to Nanchuan's request for a word of zen. You can imagine that these guys might have spent hours or maybe even days arguing with each other about this cat, each side certain that they had the right answer to the issue at hand. And what issue was that? Some say it was an argument over whether the cat had buddhanature. But maybe it was something more mundane, like whether the cat should be in the monastery, or who's turn was it to clean up after the cat. Discussions of buddhanature or the ultimate nature of things are fairly rare, even in a place like a zen monastery. But discussions about cat shit, if a cat lives nearby, are fairly common. Hard to escape those everyday details, but very easy to get hung up on your view of those everyday details.

So, you can imagine these guys fighting with each other in some puffed up way over this cat. And Nanchuan stepping in, seizing the cat, and startling all of them silent.

At this moment, all certainty goes out the window for the monks. Just a moment before, they were divided just as so much of our lives get divided by our black and white biased minds. Yet, in this silence there's an opportunity, and Nanchuan isn't going to let that opportunity go. He speaks his words of zen to the monks, but then they stay stuck in silence, unable to join the conversation, the expression of life.

Even though speaking itself places a divide across the world by naming and separating, as Katagiri Roshi said "You have to say something."

Or do something. Maybe be a little bit like Baby Jesus, but not too much, not copying him. Baby Jesus jumped into a box, as you can see. How about you?

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