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Thread: Cat cutting koan: sandal on head meaning

  1. #1

    Cat cutting koan: sandal on head meaning

    I think i may have heard this here before, but if not, i know Jundo is an amazing scholar of the history of different koans, so i ask: what was the specific cultural meaning of putting one's footwear on one's head in ancient china, as in the cat-cutting koan? Thank you all for the help.

    Gassho, John

  2. #2
    Hi John

    I may be wrong but I remember reading somewhere that putting footwear on one's head is a sign of reverence for the dead.

    However, I just read this piece and am not so sure...

    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  3. #3
    I may also be very wrong, but isn't putting a shoe on something very indicative of deep disrespect or vulgarity in Eastern cultures. Might it be saying something like, "I am no worse or better/ more sacred than the shoe..."

    Sat, lah
    求道芸化 Kyūdō Geika
    I am just a priest-in-training, please do not take anything I say as a teaching.

  4. #4

    One of the most easily misunderstood of Koans, I feel, is 'Nansen Kills the Cat.'

    Nanchuan (Nansen) saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: “If any of you can say a word of Zen, you will save the cat.” No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozho (Joshu) returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozho removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said: “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”
    Here is how I take it: The "Sword of Wisdom" in Mahayana Buddhism actually makes the separate things of the world one when it "uncuts." It is the opposite of a worldly sword. The monks, in fighting over the cat, are the ones who had already mentally divided it.

    There was unlikely to have been any literal killing celebrated by Buddhist priests who take a vow to avoid violence, not to mention all the Karmic ramifications. Instead, Nansen actually brought wholeness and the cat back to life by ending the monk's arguing and divisive thoughts, and returning to Wholeness and the Absolute. No cat was harmed, in either the relative or the absolute sense.

    The "shoes on the head" at the end, in my understanding, is a traditional gesture of mourning at Chinese funerals, showing that Joshu got the message. Here is Norman Fischer's interpretation:

    When Zhaozho comes back later and puts his sandals on his head, this is what he is saying. Putting a sandal on the head was a sign of mourning in ancient China. Zhaozho is expressing, “Teacher, do not fool me with your pantomime. You and I both know that the cat is already dead. You and I are already dead. All disputes are already settled. All things are beyond coming and going, vast and wide, at peace.”
    Barry Magid, citing Aitken Roshi, seems to say much the same:

    In Aitken Roshi's commentary on the case, he says that in old China putting your sandals on your head could be a show of mourning. Maybe a Catholic would automatically make the sign of the cross when hearing about a death. Whatever it "means," it was simply Joshu's spontaneous response to the story, and the immediacy of that response stands in stark contrast to the monks (who up until then had no shortage of words) standing around speechless when asked to "say a word".
    Pretty simple. The ASPCA certifies that no animal was actually harmed in the making of this Teaching.

    Manjushri with the "Sword of Wisdom" as found in many Zazen Halls.

    Gassho, J


    Sorry to run long
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-17-2021 at 12:43 AM.

  5. #5

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  7. #7
    I looked to see if historians agree with the "act of mourning in old China" interpretation, and I am not finding much.

    But I found a collection of traditional and more modern commentaries on "sandals on head," some poetic and some prose. All seem to make the same point, that the monks' arguing about the cat was what truly killed the cat (thus the "cutting into one" was the ending of the debate which saved the cat), was the real irrational act (thus to be answered by the irrational act of putting shoes on one's head), or was a debate that saw the world upside-down (thus to be answered by an act which puts the bottom on the top).

    It does not really matter if one believes those interpretations too, because they all are making about the same point as the "act of mourning." (It is also interesting because the verse translations show how translators can also phrase things so differently). I also add a little from Dogen at the bottom. Most of the other quotes seem heavily weighted toward the Rinzai and mixed Rinzai-Soto ways of Sambokyodan.


    Xuedou's Verse (Sekida translation, italics Cleary version)
    He asked Zhaozhou to complete the koan.
    The case completed, he consults Zhaozhou,
    It was their lesiure time in Changan.
    Freely roaming at leisure in the capital city

    The sandals on the head -- who has guessed?
    The straw sandals on the head, no one understands;
    Returning home, they were at rest.
    On getting back home, then there is rest.

    Hongzhi's Verse (Wick version, italics Cleary version)
    The good listener's indeed appreciative.
    A connoisseur is to be lauded.
    For cleaving the mountain to free the river only Yu is honored.
    In tunneling through mountains to let the sea pass through,
    only Great Yu is honored:

    For smelting stone and mending heaven only Guonu is capable.
    In smelting rock and mending the sky, only Guonu is considered best.
    Old Zhaozhou has his own style --
    Old Zhaozhou had a life:
    putting sandals on the head is worth a little.
    Wearing sandals on his head, he attains a bit.
    Coming upon differences, he's still a luminous mirror,
    Coming in differences, still clearly mirroring;
    true gold does not mix with sand.
    Only this real gold is not mixed with sand.

    Wumen's Comment (Yamada)
    What is the meaning of Zhaozhou's putting his sandals on his head? If you can give a turning word concerning this matter, you will be able to see that Nanquan's command was not meaningless. But if you can't, look out! Danger!

    Wumen's Verse (Yamada)
    Had Zhaozhou been there,
    He would have given the command instead;
    Had he snatched away the sword,
    Even Nanquan would have begged for his life.

    Tenkei's Comment
    When Zhaozhou doffed his straw sandals, what state was this? I would remark, "Where there's no style is also stylish; for the moment he lets out a pathway for you." A lot of people try to figure out the part where Zhaozhou puts his sandals on his head, but would you not doubt if Zhaozhou had put on a bandanna and left? Or would you still doubt? In any case, without the eye on the forehead you cannot know this. "If you had been here..." Oh dear! Nanquan has the head of a dragon but the tail of a snake. Is it really so? Is there any saying whether he would have saved the cat or not?

    Sekida's Comment
    Cutting the cat in two did not complete the koan; Zhaozhou's action supplied the finishing touch. Was Zhaozhou saying that he was no longer concerned with battling against self-centered thinking? Zhaozhou's action was performed as smoothly and naturally as water running in a stream. A certain thought must have been in Zhaozhou's mind, but it was a thought that came prior to reasoning, that is, an intuitive action. If we were to paraphrase it, we might say: When I was studying Zen there were many difficult and serious problems, but now that I have forgotten Zen, everything has become upside down.

    Daido's Comment
    Zhaozhou is able to settle the case. He listens to the story told by Nanquan, takes off his straw sandals, puts them on his head, and walks away. Nanquan approves. The active edges of teacher and disciple conform seamlessly. But what is Zhaozhou's meaning? How do you say a turning word that would save the cat? The turning points of these two adepts are subtle and profound. Leap free of the words if you really want to see into them.

    Daido's Verse
    Entering into the monastics' entanglements
    The old master tried to cut open a trail for them.
    Only Zhaozhou knew the path well --
    Sandals on his head, a pure spring breeze followed him out.

    Yamada's Comment
    Yasutani Roshi says: “Zhaozhou has forgotten everything, even forgetting about forgetting, and has attained great peace.” What is expressed here is how Zhaozhou has come to enlightenment, but then forgotten about that experience and its content, so that even Buddhism and the Buddha-Dharma do not remain. He has become a completely ordinary person who is completely at peace, and this action expresses that state of consciousness. It is then up to us to appreciate just how wonderful a response this is. Just what does Zhaozhou’s action mean? If you ask me, it has no meaning at all. In fact, if there were even the slightest meaning attached to it, it would already be “the difference between heaven and earth.” If you think that Zhaozhou was attempting to show with his action how he had forgotten satori and become ordinary, you would be mistaken. If there were the slightest trace of intention or trying in his action he would already have “lost his life.” It is JUST THIS. Just that action and nothing else. When we are taking a walk down a country road, for example, we will sometimes, with no particular thought as to what we are doing, pluck up a blade of grass or pull down a leaf from an overhanging tree branch. This is exactly what we have in today’s koan. Nevertheless, it would be better if he hadn’t done that! “The spirit turtle drags its tail.” A sea turtle will come up on the beach to lay its eggs in the sand, bury them and return to the ocean. In order to prevent the eggs from being found, the mother turtle uses her tail to brush away her footprints in the sand. The turtle is very clever, but the traces of her tail remain on the sand. Zhaozhou's action was truly wonderful but he too, after all, is a “spirit turtle dragging its tail.”

    Shishin Wick's Comment
    Is this mere stoicism on Zhaozhou's part? Does Zhaozhou's response mean we should close our hearts to the suffering of other beings? If you would think that Zhaozhou was divorcing himself from the screeching and scratching and splattering of the dying cat, you don't understand Zhaozhou's action, nor what it means to save the cat. Is he just playing the jester, implying Nanquan made a mess of things and got everything all upside-down. Zen practice is not about killing your compassionate heartfelt responses to life and its events. When things get uncomfortable, most people divert their attention by withdrawing, getting angry or depressed, or numbing themselves to their own feelings. That's not the Zen Way. Unless you open your heart, you cannot say a word to save the cat.

    Rothenberg's Verse
    The Cat Could Have Lived

    I took off my sandals, placed them on my head.
    If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.
    Of like hearts, like minds,
    You two on the same road would know that.
    You may murder the cat, it's none of my business
    The sandals don't purr, and torn they won't scream.
    If someone dies for them these puzzles matter.
    You must try to care, if you wish to live.

    Koun Yamada
    Jsh, the foremost student of Nansen, appears to have been absent at the time of these events. When he returned, Nansen told him what had happened and then asked him how he would have responded if he were there. In response, Jsh took his straw sandals on his head and walked out. That’s a very interesting response. Most people would wonder why he did such a crazy thing. But when Nansen saw it he praised Jsh to the skies. “That’s just like you Jsh! If you had been there, I would not have had to kill the cat. It was too bad that I had to kill it.” What does this action of putting his sandals on his head and walking out mean? After all, sandals usually belong on your feet and not on your head. You might say that, with his action, Jsh was destroying all such fixed notions. But my way of viewing it is somewhat different. Although I believe this other view has its justification, it still has some meaning. When we are walking along a country path, we might pluck a flower or a tuft of grass without any special reason. I can’t help feeling it’s the same thing here in this koan. There is no reasoning whatsoever in his action. Even ideas about where sandals belong are completely absent from his consciousness. And then he just walks out. Even Nansen’s cutting the cat has no meaning at all. In his action he was revealing the world of Mu. But just killing the cat is only half, as the Instruction has told us. After having experienced the world of nothing at all, the world of Mu, you must return to the ordinary world. Once you have returned there, there is nothing on your mind. When you stand up, there is just that standing up. When you’re thirsty you drink a glass of water. Unless you can live such a life, it is not yet perfect. If you remain in the world of nothingness, it is still only half way. You must return once again to the ordinary world. For only there can you lead the life of no-mind. And then there will well up a spirit of wanting to help the unfortunate. It is the ordinary person who, although knowing this, fails to open his purse strings. It must become completely free, without any obstruction. You could say that Jsh is revealing that world in his action.

    Shobogenzo-Zuimonki 1-5

    Dogen said, ... “If I had been Nansen, I would have said, ‘If you cannot speak, I will kill it; even if you can speak, I will kill it. Who would fight over a cat? Who can save the cat? On behalf of the students, I would have said, ‘We are not able to speak, Master. Go ahead and kill the cat!’ Or, I would have said for them, ‘Master, you only know about cutting it (the cat) into two with one stroke, yet you do not know about cutting it into one with one stroke.’”

    Ejo asked, “How do you cut it into one with one stroke?”

    Dogen said, “The cat itself.”

    Dogen added, “If I had been Nansen, when the students could not answer, I would have released the cat saying that the students had already spoken. An ancient master said, ‘When the great-function manifests itself, no fixed rules exist.’”

    Dogen also said, “This action of Nansen’s that is, cutting the cat, is a manifestation of the great-function of the buddha-dharma. This is a pivot-word. If it were not a pivotword, it could not be said that mountains, rivers, and the great earth are the excellent pure and bright Mind. Or it could not be said that Mind itself is the Buddha. Upon hearing this pivot-word, see the cat itself as nothing but the Buddha-body. Upon hearing this word, students must immediately enter enlightenment.”

    Dogen also said, “This action, that is, cutting the cat, is nothing other than Buddha’s action.”

    Ejo said, “What shall we call it?”

    Dogen said, “Call it cutting the cat.”

    Ejo asked, “Is it a [Karmic] crime or not?”

    Dogen said, “Yes, it is a crime.”

    Ejo inquired, “How are we able to be released from it?”

    Dogen said, “Buddha’s action and the criminal action are separate, yet they both occur in one action.”


    Eihei Koroku 9-76

    [Dogen:] One day at Nanquan, the monks from the eastern and western halls were fighting over a cat. Seeing this, Nanquan finally held up the cat and said, “If you can speak, I will not cut the cat.” The assembly did not respond. Nanquan cut the cat in two. Nanquan later related and asked about this event to Zhaozhou.
    Zhaozhou immediately removed his straw sandals, put them on his head, and left. Nanquan said, “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”

    Two verses:
    Nanquan repeatedly called for a saying.
    His monks were refined, with voices like thunder.
    How sad, the cat’s life like so much dew;
    With cold sword, sentimental doubts were cut through.

    Chiyang [Nanquan] held up the cat and said,
    “If you can speak, the cat will live, otherwise it dies.”
    Tell me whether Nanquan heard
    The monks in both halls with voice like thunder
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-17-2021 at 07:48 AM.

  8. #8
    WoW ...Lovely!

    Thank you for that Jundo!


  9. #9
    Thank you Jundo and everyone else! This was very enlightening. The text we're studying in my zendo this ango happens to be the Genjokoan, so i might have some more questions about Dogen in the future. I ordered the book Realizing Genjokoan, and am looking forward to the questions that will undoubtedly arise from this study. Sorry for going a little long.

    Gassho, John

    Sent from my LM-K500 using Tapatalk

  10. #10

    Gassho, Shinshi

    空道 心志 Kudo Shinshi
    I am just a priest-in-training, any resemblance between what I post and actual teachings is purely coincidental.

  11. #11
    Treeleaf Unsui / Engineer Sekishi's Avatar
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    Apr 2013
    Virginia, USA
    I think the wisdom above is all excellent!

    I don't know if this is off base or not, but also feel there is an entreaty to speak / act directly here.

    For me, a key phrase in this Koan is: "If any of you can say a word of Zen, you will save the cat."

    None of them says a thing - caught in analytic thinking, dividing the world into self and other, cat and no cat. Nansen said "speak" and they sat there thinking about the "right" thing to say.

    Joshu on the other hand replied "immediately" to this matter of life and death.

    If we speak from direct experience how can we go wrong?

    I feel this Koan is a close cousin to Kyogen's "Man in a Tree":

    Kyogen said, “Its like a man up in a tree, hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands can’t grasp a bough, his feet won’t reach one. Under the tree there is another man, who asks him the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west. If he doesn’t answer, he evades his duty. If he answers, he will lose his life. What should he do?"
    But you don't have to take my word for it. --LeVar

    #sat #clung #lah

    He/him. As a novice priest-in-training, this is simply an expression of my opinion. Please take it with a grain of salt.

  12. #12
    This turned into an awesome thread! As I was reading through this, I feel like what you said Sekishi. What would I do to save the cat? I am the cat. Also, and ultimately, there is no getting out of this alive. Life sometimes is about doing our best under pressure, limitation and ambiguity, but the key is to act as best we can. Nothing points this out sometimes as poignantly as Ango, when our lives butt up against the commitments we set when we were optimistically starting out. I take it as a challenge.



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