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Thread: [Challenging Times] - (6) - Cutting the World in Two - Melissa Myozen Blacker

  1. #1

    [Challenging Times] - (6) - Cutting the World in Two - Melissa Myozen Blacker

    We jump back, to page 59, "Cutting the World in Two" by Myozen Blacker.

    Rev. Blacker was supposed to come as a guest in a couple of weeks, but her daughter is having a baby and she has been called to help with that adventure. We will try to reschedule her visit for a later date. I wish that she could visit with us, but she cannot cut herself in two, and be two places at once!

    In the meantime, this is a wonderful essay on a Koan about killing a cat, drawing complaints from PETA and the SPCA. Just kidding! No animals were actually hurt in the making of this Koan!

    Quite the contrary, it is about healing and coming together. Like Mary Mocine's essay, it too touches on our divided countries and politics, and our feeling anger and disappointment.

    My question to you is, how can we work to cut the cat (and our countries) into one, not two?

    For those who do not yet have a copy, I have made a PDF version available here for those waiting for their ordered book, or those unable to afford or obtain the book:

    By the way, our visit with Mary Mocine is still available to hear and see any time:

    Gassho, Jundo


  2. #2
    Hi everyone

    I've never been a fan of koan study mainly because I do not believe I have all the necessary cultural and linguistic information to understand the lesson of many of the koans. For example, what does it mean to take a sandal off a foot and place it on your head? It could just be a zen response that need not make any sense, but it might also indicate a cultural nuance that fully illuminates the koan. I'm reading some other material about Zen history and that helps to bring to light some of the meaning of the koans, though I also bear in mind that 'it is not the end of the world' if I don't understand, and it doesn't mean "I'm a Zen failure.' For these reasons I tend to find the commentary or interpretation much more useful. I'm not too worried about whether a cat was actually harmed or not, that seems like a red-herring, and might even be provocative to push you to stop arguing with the 'eastern and western halls' in your own head! Perhaps the arguing about the cat on this day was the culmination of a long-standing argument and Nanchuan had just had enough!

    Anyway, I like how Myozen Blackler handles this often-quoted koan. She breathes new life into it and directs us to the meaning rather than worry too much about the cat. I like the point that Nanchuan shows us the consequence of doing nothing – the cat gets the chop! This also being related to saying nothing in our modern world. She tells us that Zen practice is both in and beyond the binary world, we are just able to see things from another perspective with Zen practice, and that can be expressed with a sandal on the head, as such, or literally to convey the point if necessary, as did ZhaoZhou.

    When we fight reality, reality always wins. It seems so obvious yet, as Myozen points out, we fight anyway and become exhausted. In embracing reality and turning towards suffering with openness, gives us more freedom to respond creatively she seems to be suggesting, but it requires a change in the heart so that it is not thinly disguised 'fighting with reality'. I like the sense of hope conveyed in this essay. She does not shy away from the enormity of the challenge but identifies that there really is only one way for humans to face these problems, and that is with an open and compassionate heart that does not accept suffering and defeat as inevitable.

    How will you save the cat???

    Gassho, Tokan

    平道 島看 Heidou Tokan (Balanced Way Island Nurse)
    I enjoy learning from everyone, I simply hope to be a friend along the way

  3. #3
    This Koan comes up from time to time, causes some animal lovers some distress. So, I usually say something like this. It is simply not true, in the Soto tradition, that these old Koans "cannot be explained" and some background offered. Of course, we should not merely understand them intellectually ...


    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


    PS - Here is a Cutting Cat ...


  4. #4
    To where shall I send flowers in memory of the cat?


  5. #5
    Hello everyone.
    I liked how Myozen Blackler emphasized the idea that we may need to categorize things into 'good' and 'bad' to survive in the world, just like the arguing monks were doing. But Zen practice is about seeing beyond this duality. I guess this is why the cat got killed - because by arguing with each other the monks were failing to see the bigger picture of reality as one whole. They were attaching to views instead of trying to heal their divisions.

    Sat today, LAH

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Daiman View Post
    To where shall I send flowers in memory of the cat?

    I think he/she is everywhere, in all our heads


    Sat today, Lah

  7. #7
    What struck me about this essay was the importance of turning toward reality, even when it isn't what I want it to be. And then the question "What do you do?" What can be said or done without adding to the divisiveness in the world? What would an act of true compassion? As Jundo says "...cut the cat (and our countries) into one, not two"?

    Gassho, Onkai
    Sat lah
    美道 Bidou Beautiful Way
    恩海 Onkai Merciful/Kind Ocean

    I have a lot to learn; take anything I say that sounds like teaching with a grain of salt.

  8. #8
    I think this is one of the clearest discussions Nansen Kills the Cat I’ve ever read. I like how Myozen Blackler makes it real by applying it to events that are familiar.

    The cat was divided by the arguing between the monks of the Eastern and Western hall. Nansen tries to make the cat whole by focusing the monks’ attention on the cat rather than their divisiveness. They couldn’t see beyond their argument to speak up and save the cat.

    How similar is that to so many aspects of our human world these days?

    I look forward to Myozen Blackler’s talk when/if it happens.

    Sat today and lah

  9. #9
    I think this is one of the clearest discussions Nansen Kills the Cat I’ve ever read. I like how Myozen Blackler makes it real by applying it to events that are familiar.
    yes. and what stroke me was this idea of: if you do nothing the cat will be cut in two.. Realizing more and more that doing nothing will not be enough, but as Hisamatsu said as the ultimate koan: Nothing will do. What do you do?



    hobo kore dojo / 歩歩是道場 / step, step, there is my place of practice

    Aprāpti (अप्राप्ति) non-attainment

  10. #10
    I like these chapters- we are all justified in our beliefs, but staying locked in them doesn't help anyone. This reminds me of a quote by Marcus Aurelius that I love:

    “It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet."

    I know I have plenty of things that I allow to pull my strings, but it doesn't have to be that way and it is rarely ever productive to dig in. It really is a choice if I let myself become angry - anger may I arise but I don't have to believe that it is me or let it dictate my actions, which is so easy to type right now but very difficult for me to practice. hahaha



  11. #11
    My response to this koan in Rinzai training was me-ow,me-ow,me-ow.

    Perhaps we are the cat being pulled apart by extreme ideological factions that
    on the right want to cut GLBTQ persons with trans people being the target of 2023
    and the left extremists who shout down speakers they do not like even at Stanford
    Law school.
    I appreciate this koan as an invitation to help all the cats,dogs ,people who face life
    threatening dangers.
    I doubt any swords were used as a teaching tool.

    Gassho, peace, Paul sat lah

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