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The koan of Nansen and the cat

The koan of `Nansen and the cat' is one of the best known, and most disturbing, in the Zen tradition. There are various versions and translations: the following is a typical example.

Nansen walked by while the monks of the East Hall and the West Hall were quarreling over a cat. Nansen held up the cat, and said ``If any one of you can say even one word of Zen, you can have the cat. Otherwise, I'm going to kill it''. No-one spoke. So Nansen drew his sword, and killed the cat. Later, Nansen asked Joshu what he would have said if he had been there. Joshu took off his sandal and put it on his head. Nansen said: ``It's a shame you weren't there: I wouldn't have had to kill the cat''.

We don't know if this is a true story; if it is a true story, we don't know whether Nansen really killed the cat, or if it's just a metaphor. Many commentators prefer the latter interpretation: it's not really in keeping with our views of a venerable Zen master that he should kill a harmless dumb animal just to make a point. What we do know is that that Nansen and Joshu were Chinese Zen monks who lived in the T'ang dynasty (600-900 AD), a time when Zen was at its most influential. Nansen was a famous Zen teacher; Joshu was a student of his for over fifty years. Conversations between Nansen and Joshu form a significant part of the corpus of Zen koans that have survived. It wasn't until Nansen died that Joshu developed his own reputation as a teacher; according to Zen tradition Joshu lived to be 120 years old.

The koan of the cat does not tell us what the monks' quarrel was about. Some authorities maintain that the argument was a doctrinal one, and concerned the place of animals in the great scheme of things. Another common interpretation is a more practical one: Zen monks would be vegetarian, but a cat is a handy thing to have when your staple diet is rice, and your larder is overrun with mice. It's easy to imagine a bunch of vegetarians getting in a lather over the ethics of keeping a cat to eat mice. Or perhaps the monks just wanted a pet. Many of the monks would have been young, little more than children, and there wasn't much in the way of diversion in a Zen monastery.

Similarly, the koan does not tell us why Nansen was prowling the corridors of the monastery armed with a sword. Perhaps this was common practice in those days.

Nansen entreats the monks to say even one word of Zen. What was he expecting them to say? Perhaps he was expecting a spontaneous haiku on the sound of dew settling on petals. Perhaps he was just expecting one of the monks to say `Give us our cat back, you bullying old git.' In the end the monks were dumbstruck. They had plenty to say when they were bickering amongst themselves, but faced with a real test of their knowledge and understanding, they didn't have the confidence to speak up. Then again, being confronted by an elderly maniac waving a sword could have that effect.

Whether or not Nansen then actually kills the cat, or this is just a figure of speech, the action moves on to the meeting between Nansen and Joshu. Nansen wants to know what Joshu would have said, if he had been asked to say a word of Zen. Why does Joshu put his sandal on his head? It has been suggested that in some parts of China, putting a shoe on one's head is a sign of mourning. So perhaps Joshu is saying ``I am in mourning for the cat''. However, a more credible explanation is that Joshu's response to Nansen's question is simply saying ``Why are you asking such a stupid question?'' The correct response to a stupid, unanswerable question is not to try to answer it, but to make a stupid, answerable reply. By putting his sandal on his head, Joshu is saying that he's not dumbstruck by the question, but that it's just too dumb to merit an answer. The `answer' evidently satisfies Nansen, but Nansen and Joshu have been verbal sparring partners for many years, and are - we imagine - familiar with each other's foibles.

The monks in this koan are faced with a choice: they can take immediate action to deal with the very real and immediate threat to the cat, or they can get caught up in the metaphysics of the situation. Predictably, their inability to recognize this choice as the source of the problem paralyses them.

The koan of Nansen and the cat demonstrates that Zen is not about being able to say the right word when put on the spot, but the ability to rise above meaningless questions. Joshu became famous for answering questions in ways that avoided becoming ensnared in pointless metaphysical debate. When a monk asked him ``What is the meaning of life?'' Joshu replied ``Have you had your lunch?''. In one of the most influential Zen exchanges recorded, another monk asks Joshu if a dog has a `Bhuddha nature'. Rather than entering into philosophical speculation on the nature of reality, Joshu simply says `No!'. What's lost in translation is that the Chinese word for "no", often written in English as "wu", is also the sound that Chinese children use to describe the sound of a dog barking. So this koan could also be written like this:

Monk: Does a dog have a Bhudda nature?

Joshu: Woof!

There are some very complex analyses of the koan of Nansen and the cat. Some try to relate the actions of Nansen and Joshu to those of certain (probably mythical) revered figures of the past. Some get caught up in the ethics of the situation, and go to great lengths to explain why Nansen did not kill the cat in any real sense, even though he did cut it in half. The irony is that it is exactly this sort of the thing that the koan itself is mocking. The great Zen masters took decades of study to realize that everything they needed to know about Zen, they had always known. Zen is about practical matters, not intellectual ones. Trying to becoming enlightened by studying Zen is like trying to become warm by studying thermodynamics. The correct approach is to put on a coat.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]