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Thread: Nansen and that cat

  1. #1

    Nansen and that cat

    Ok, so I may seem a little dense on this. I've read a few koans since I started with this sangha, and I believe I have understood a few of them, but I don't get the one about Nansen and the cat. Jundo's made a reference to this a few times with his "more than one way to skin a cat (or cut it in two)." Here's the koan, just in case though I know you all probably know it:

    Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: `If any of you say something, you can save the cat.'
    No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

    That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.
    Nansen said: `If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.'

    Soooooooo....why didn't someone just say, "hey, Nansen, seriously.....don't cut the cat in two."? Am I mistranslating this? Is it supposed to say something other than "if you can say something"? And what's up with the sandals? Mu, I feel I understand. Rice cakes, I feel I understand. Nansen cuts the cat in two.....lost as a babe in the woods.
    Any ideas????

  2. #2

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    If you had to be any of the characters in the story, who would you be?

  3. #3

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    If you had to be any of the characters in the story, who would you be?
    You mean aside from picking ‘anyone but the cat’? :lol:

    I’d have to say I’d rather have been Joshu. He seems to be the only one in the story who didn’t behave wrongly. The monks where arguing (though we don’t know about what, just that it dealt with the cat), and Nansen took the cat’s life. Only Joshus actions, while strange, wouldn’t be considered violent towards anyone.

  4. #4

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnsonCM
    Soooooooo....why didn't someone just say, "hey, Nansen, seriously.....don't cut the cat in two."? Am I mistranslating this? Is it supposed to say something other than "if you can say something"? And what's up with the sandals? Mu, I feel I understand. Rice cakes, I feel I understand. Nansen cuts the cat in two.....lost as a babe in the woods.
    Hi,

    You're right, there sure is alot of "non-sense" in that story.

    gassho,

    JohnH

  5. #5

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnsonCM
    Ok, so I may seem a little dense on this. I've read a few koans since I started with this sangha, and I believe I have understood a few of them ...
    Well, are you sure? There's understanding, and then there's understanding.

    Most Koan are not to be understood with the faculties of reason or logic alone. I mean, in most cases they have a logic to them ... but it is a kind of Buddhist or Zen 'anti-logic logic' that throws a monkey wrench in our "normal, common sense" way of experiencing the world. They are not to be understood just with the thinking brain, but understood with the skin, flesh, bones, marrow and (don't stop there!) ... That's not to say that they are "illogical" ... but there is a kind of Zenny "Alice in Wonderland" logic to it all (see Cheshire Cat reference below) ...

    Some schools of Zen took this to an extreme, pulled a single word out of the Koan (such as "Mu") to be held as the object of focus during Zazen, and gave up (and even criticized) any attempt at all to wrestle with the "non-logic logic" of the Koan. Sometimes, the teacher would not even bother to teach the full story to the student, and just give the one "Hwadu" phrase of the Koan. It was felt that, if the Koan were 'resolved' in that way ... all the Buddha's Teachings would naturally come pouring forth from Buddha knows where. (I think that such a radical approach is rather like trying to build a great building with dynamite as one's only tool ... One might succeed, but good chance one will end up only with a confused pile of rubble). Most folks in Zen history were not so extreme.

    Soto practice was never that extreme about it. We do not hold the Koan (or any thoughts) as an object of focus during Zazen. We wrestle with the Koan "off the Zafu" ... although (note well please) by bringing the 'thinking non-thinking' of Zazen into the wrestling match. We do 'wrestle' with the 'point(s) of the Koan' ... although, again, as Buddhist anti-logic logic.

    What is such Buddhist or Zen 'anti-logic logic'.?

    In the famous 'Mu' Koan, the question was asked whether 'a dog has Buddha-nature'. It is well known in Buddhist philosophy that all sentient creatures (a dog is considered sentient) have "Buddha-nature', so the answer is "yes". Obvious, as obvious as that "Wednesday follows Tuesday, no question**". Despite that, Joshu answered "no!" ... (or, better, with a word "mu" that can mean both "no" and "nothingness/emptiness"). In some versions of the Koan, he sometimes answers "yes" and at other times answers "no/emptiness" to the same exact question. All are "right answers" depending the angle one looks at the thing.

    What's more (and here the radical Koan folks and all Zen folks agree) ... if you just understand this 'yes/no-emptiness' in your head ... and do not feel 'yes/no-emptiness' down in your guts ... you are doing something like just describing the taste of sweet vanilla ice cream in words instead of tasting it on your own tongue. Even the greatest poet cannot truly capture what must be seen with the tongue and tasted with the eyes.

    Because "words" cannot go very far to explain a lot of this stuff (for the reasons just stated ... the trap of defining things with just usual words and logic and mental ideas, plus the need to 'taste' and not talk about it) ... many Zen folks will sometimes resort to pounding the table, drawing circles in the air, or putting sandals on their head. (But don't merely copy someone else ... for example, by putting sandals on your head just because some other guy did ... because that would only mean you have not truly tasted the ice cream yourself and are stealing his tongue).

    There is a Precept against killing. We do not cut cats in two (or risk rebirth as a cat). Nansen cut the cat in two.

    But had the monks' fighting over owning the thing ... clutching for something to hold ... already "killed the cat" in the first place, even while its heart was still beating?

    And how can one truly divide the undivided into two? (something like 'what is zero cut in two'?). **

    Speak, speak!!

    Gassho, J

    PS - This cat is even wilder than Schrödinger's cat (not to make some cheap comparison to Quantum Mechanics as many New Age folks are prone to do) ... that cat was only alive or dead ... while our cat doesn't even stop there!

    http://skepticblog.org/2009/11/16/deepa ... ics-again/
    http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2005 ... leep_.html

    PPS - Our cat is also something of Alice's Cheshire Cat ...

    “"`Cheshire Puss,' [Alice] began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. `Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
    `That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
    `I don't much care where--' said Alice.
    `Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
    `--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.
    `Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'". ...

    Cheshire Cat: Oh, by the way, if you'd really like to know, he went that way.
    Alice: Who did?
    Cheshire Cat: The White Rabbit.
    Alice: He did?
    Cheshire Cat: He did what?
    Alice: Went that way.
    Cheshire Cat: Who did?
    Alice: The White Rabbit.
    Cheshire Cat: What rabbit?
    Alice: But didn't you just say - I mean - Oh, dear.
    Cheshire Cat: Can you stand on your head?
    Alice: Oh!

    ... [AT that, the Cheshire Cat] vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”


    Actually, there is a strange parallel, as there is also a scene in Alice in which the "Cheshire Cat" was to be cut in two ...

    [F]rom the start the King and Cheshire cat don't get along. The king demands its execution and goes to fetch the executioner himself. Alice tries to play croquet some more, but finds it hopeless; she returns to find the executioner, the King, and the Queen arguing, with the Cheshire cat calmly watching. The executioner argues that since the cat is only a head, he cannot be beheaded. The king argues that anything that has a head can be beheaded. The Queen threatens to behead everyone if they don't find a solution. They ask Alice to mediate, and Alice recommends that they fetch the Duchess; it's her cat, after all. By the time the Duchess is brought forth, the cat has vanished.

    PPPS - It is obvious that Wednesday always follows Tuesday. But do not forget that Tuesday always follows the prior Wednesday, week in and week out ... and, anyway, who invented the calendar but people? The moon and sun do not know Tuesday from Wednesday, do thay?

  6. #6

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Hiyas

    My first answer when met this koan. for being in the role of a monk in that assembly when Nansen asked for one word of zen was that I would have just stood up and yelled Meow! its not non-sense but it can be read that way. That was my initial response, not as compassionate as Joshu and not much in the way of prajna if you read on .

    Joshu putting his sandals on his head and walking out, then, meant little to me in the other half of the koan. However, thanks to others discussions and answers I learned that Joshu was symbolically indicating he was in mourning or attending a funeral(? one or the other i forget now) ANY who now that would resonate with the very thing Jundo just pointed out ... anyway it was viewed the cat was dead..by Nansens blade or the monks bickering. Or as indicated by Munon's poem below, perhaps he would have been attending a different persons funeral? Breaking his own precepts and killing his master in order to save his master and the monks from there own evil karma? However you come around to it, in the monks place Joshu would have taken some action.

    In The Gateless Barrier Zen comments on the Mumokan, Mumon wrote:

    Had Joshu only been there
    He would have taken action
    Had he snatched the sword away
    Nansen would have begged for his life

    Take this with a pinch of salt (a grain just wouldn't cover it!)

    Gassho
    Shohei

  7. #7

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Quote Originally Posted by Shohei
    However, thanks to others discussions and answers I learned that Joshu was symbolically indicating he was in mourning or attending a funeral(? one or the other i forget now)
    [Paul Boston, sees] putting sandals on one’s head is a classical Chinese expression of humility. Robert Aitken (The Gateless Barrier, The Wu-Men Kuan 1990: 98) theorises this as an ancient Chinese sign of mourning. Cleary (No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan 1993: 68) sees it as a "farcical act [that] silently remarks that to be enslaved by something that originally was supposed to foster liberation is like being worn by a pair of shoes instead of wearing them."

    This brings up another issue with Koan ...

    They were originally written in colloquial Chinese, chock full of slang and inside jokes and puns (which only make sense in Chinese), obscure poem and song references. In other words, many actually "meant" something at the time, or something quite different from how we might now read them ... many of the original references lost to time (although others never "meant" something in the normal way anyway).

    It is as if we were to write Koans now that used such Americanisms as "Casey at the bat" "hang ten" "get one's mojo on" and such ... and puns like "you can tuna a guitar, but can you tuna fish?" ... plus lyrics to pop songs on the top 40 charts (" ... but I did not shoot the deputy") ... and expect folks to "get" the meaning 1000 years from now in whatever language our descendants will be speaking in their Zendo on Venus.

    Good luck with that.

    Gassho, J

  8. #8
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Koans bypass our logical and usual thinking.
    Koans are not meant to be understood.
    They give us a kick in the b...

    They take us to a place where our conventional vision and take on things are challenged.
    Cows and countless animals are killed to feed me, maybe to feed you. And if not, countless vegetables are deprived of the soil to be gulped by you and me.
    This seems to challenge your idea of how a teacher should be, should say and act like...
    In a way, this is the first precious kick...many more to come.


    gassho

    Taigu

  9. #9

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Hi.

    It seems this one has been brought up before, or has it?
    viewtopic.php?f=1&t=1325&p=18900#p18817



    As for understanding a koan, i would rather use transcending, seeing through it...
    But it's all good practice.,

    Mtfbwy
    Fugen

  10. #10

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    I know nothing of koans but it strikes me that maybe some are calls to action. We philosophise about some koans such as this one, or we investigate them in the Zen ways but perhaps they are also/or practical?

    For example in this one. To "stand there" thinking of which word to say, or even which action to take when you put yourself in that scenario is not good for the cat. I'd just grab the cat and run-the monastery can sort itself out later. My job was just to spontaneously save the cat.

    In the upshot looking after each other and life in general is most important whether I ever get to study a koan or not.

    All the best to you all.

    Rich

    PS I'm going to try to get see you all and sit with you at 1pm GMT today. No promises I can get it all to work but fingers crossed!

  11. #11

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Hi Christopher
    The Buddha would choose to be the cat.

  12. #12

    Re: Nansen and that cat

    Well, are you sure? There's understanding, and then there's understanding.

    Most Koan are not to be understood with the faculties of reason or logic alone. I mean, in most cases they have a logic to them ... but it is a kind of Buddhist or Zen 'anti-logic logic' that throws a monkey wrench in our "normal, common sense" way of experiencing the world.
    As to being sure, I think I've given up on that. Seems like everything I thought I knew, ends up being everything I thought I knew. As for the (admittedly) two koans out of the fifty to sixty some odd that I've read, that I feel I understand, when I was reading them or thinking about them one time, I got a jolt of recognition, sort of like a "holy crap, that's what that means!" kind of thing. That having been said, I can tell you that I only feel that I know what it means, and that I don't really know how one would go about verifying that one really does know it or if one only thinks one knows it. Maybe I need you or Taigu to tell me if I still have my eyebrows or not. But I'll put myself out there on Mu.

    Joshu (A.D. 778-897) was a famous Chinese Zen Master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day a troubled monk approached him, intending to ask the Master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, "Has that dog a Buddha-nature or not?" The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted: "MU!"

    My answer is this and it came to me suddenly one day. I wondered why he would say "mu" when they both obviously knew that all things had Buddha-nature. It made no sense. Then I was wrestling with it one day after zazen and came to this:

    What other answer could he possibly have given? After all, there is no dog.

    I say this because it suddenly seemed to me that the monk was creating the separation between him and the dog. His delusion of him and dog, is the delusion of self and other. The monk was forming that delusion and clinging to the idea of the self. The only answer that could have been given was "mu".

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