A vintage koan commentary by the Center’s founder, the late Roshi Philip Kapleau.

Mumonkan number 14: Nansen kills the cat

Painting by Shōkei
Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia

The Case
Once the monks of the Western and Eastern Halls were arguing about a cat. Nansen, holding up the cat, said, “You monks! If you can say a word of Zen, I will spare the cat. Otherwise I will kill it.” No one could answer, so Nansen cut the cat in two. That evening, when Joshu returned, Nansen told him of the incident. Joshu thereupon took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked off. Nansen said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved!”

The Commentary
Just say, what is the real meaning of Joshu’s putting his sandal on his head? If you can give a turning word on this point, you will see that Nansen’s action was not in vain. But if not, beware!

The Verse
Had Joshu only been there,
he would have taken charge.
He would have snatched away the sword,
and Nansen would have begged for his life.

The two protagonists of this koan, Nansen and Joshu, are two of the great masters in Zen. Nansen was the teacher of Joshu (Chinese: Zhaozhou). Nansen (Chinese: Nanchuan) in turn was a disciple of the great Baso (Chinese: Mazu). Nansen’s dates are 748 to 835.

He had his head shaved at the age of nine, and at 30 took full ordination vows and devoted himself to Buddhist study for several years. Finally, he knocked on the door of Zen Master Baso and “forgot all that he had previously learned.”

At 47, in the year 795, Nansen built with his own hands a retreat hut on Mount Nansen, from which he took his name. One of his disciples was the governor of the province, and there’s an intriguing mondo between the two. After the governor had had dokusan with Nansen, Nansen said to him, “When you return to your office in the city, how will you rule the people?” The answer was, “I will use wisdom to govern them.” Nansen said, “In that case, every last one of them will suffer.”

What we see here is a sense of self-intentionality, which, on the face of it, seems to be a very fine thing: to endeavor to govern with wisdom, compassion. But once you talk about it, it’s already gone. You’re already assured that there won’t be any wisdom or compassion. You don’t need to set about to govern with wisdom or compassion if you just govern fully, put yourself wholly into any activity: nothing held back, without any notions of being wise or being this or being that. The action will be a true action. We all have this compassion and innate wisdom, this prajna wisdom, that will emerge once we remove the obstacles to its functioning.

Another anecdote: when Nansen was about to die the head monk asked him, “Your reverence, 100 years from now where will you be?” “I shall be a water buffalo at the foot of the hill,” said the master. “Would it be all right for me to follow you?” asked the head monk. “If you follow me, you must hold a stalk of grass in your mouth,” was Nansen’s reply.

“I would be a water buffalo at the foot of the hill.” Nansen believed it is through work that one finds real fulfillment. Not only work for oneself but work for others. Of course, work that is truly for oneself is for others. Nansen wants to be a water buffalo at the foot of the hill! Nothing spectacular. Just to be an ordinary water buffalo and serve. That’s all a water buffalo does.

Let’s say something briefly about Joshu, although it’s hard to be brief where Joshu is concerned. There are so many mondo about him. His dates are 778 to 897, which puts his age at death at about 120. There is a very famous mondo between Nansen and Joshu, which became a koan in the Mumonkan. Joshu asked, “What is the Way?” Nansen replies, “Ordinary mind is the Way.” Joshu asked, “Shall I try to seek after it?” “If you try to seek after it, you go away from it.” Joshu continued, “If I do not try for it, how can I know the Way?” The master replied, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is illusion, not-knowing is blankness. If you attain to this Way of no-doubt, it is as boundless a vast space, so how can there be right or wrong in the Way?” At these words, Joshu was said to have had his first enlightenment. This was at the age of around 18.

“If you attain true comprehension of the Tao, the Way, your vision will be like infinite space, free of all limits and obstacles.” We begin to see what is meant in Zen about this freedom to move in any direction. All concepts, all notions of phenomena, will all go from the mind.

After Joshu’s full enlightenment, around the age of 58, he spent many years traveling to visit other Zen masters. It wasn’t until he was almost 80 that he opened up his own temple. One time somebody said to him, “A man of your age should try to find a place to settle down and teach.” Joshu pointedly asked, “Where is my abiding place?” And then this person said, “What? With so many years on your head you have not even come to know where your permanent home is?” Of course, this person was somebody who would have had training in Zen. To which Joshu says, “For 30 years I’ve roamed freely on horseback. Today for the first time I’ve been kicked by an ass.”

Now, back to our koan. This is one of the most famous in the Mumonkan, and some commentaries on it have voiced alarm by moralists about the killing of a cat. But if the koan is truly understood in its deepest sense, we transcend all moral and ethical considerations. When people hear that, they may ask, “Well, does this mean that Zen is above morality?” The answer is yes, it is—but morality is not below Zen. Zen transcends morality, but it doesn’t exclude it. Morality by itself is confining; it’s kind of a brace: a brace of right and wrong. And, of course, Zen wants to take us beyond that.

The koan begins, “Once the monks of the Eastern Hall and the Western Hall were arguing about a cat.” What may have happened was that Nansen (and Joshu) had gone to town, and as often happens when the Roshi’s away—well, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” And then in walks this cat. Although the koan doesn’t tell us what they were arguing about, it could’ve been, “Does a cat, too, have Buddha-nature?” And one group is saying it has, while the other says no, it hasn’t. And as this dispute is going on, Nansen comes upon the scene. We can only imagine how bad he feels to see the Zen monks not only idly arguing about the cat, but displaying no real understanding.

So he grabs the cat—probably with mixed emotions of disappointment in the monks and compassion for them—and he says, “You monks, if you can say a word of Zen I will spare the cat. Otherwise, I will kill it.” And he’s holding the cat by the neck and the cat is going “Yeoowoowyeeow”…you can just see him there fiercely holding that cat. But nobody can answer. So suddenly he picks up a knife, and just hhhwhiiissssk!—cuts the cat. Oh, yes.

Aghast, no one seems to understand what’s going on. The first vital point of the koan is, “What is a word of Zen?” Is there a word of Zen? We read that Zen is a transmission beyond words and letters. Please do not misunderstand: this does not mean that Zen is against words and letters. If it were, there would be no Mumonkan, no Blue Cliff Record, and all of the masters would have had to be silent. What Zen wants are live words.

Well, suppose you had been there? What would you have said? What would have been a live word?

In the evening, when Joshu comes back, Nansen puts the question to him. Now, needless to say Nansen knows Joshu’s capabilities, and he enacts this little play, this tableau, with him, and for more reasons than one. One, of course, is to let him know what had been going on that afternoon: how the monks failed to understand his teaching. And he says, “What would you have done had you been there?” Joshu doesn’t utter a word, but just takes off his sandal, puts it on his head, and walks out. Nansen says admiringly, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved!” Now, how would Joshu have saved the cat?

We must also see that this cat is not just a cat. It was a cat up until the time that Nansen killed it. In killing it, he gave it life. Zen Master Dogen commented on this koan, “He didn’t cut the cat in two. He cut it in one.” Sometimes this is translated, “In cutting the cat, there was no cut.”

How did Nansen bring the cat to life? We might ask, if that cat is alive, where is it right now? That cat is not only a cat, it’s Isha the dog, it’s the redbud tree flowering in the backyard. It’s Mu. When you have a live Mu, that dead cat becomes a live Mu. Muuu! Muuu! No different from meow meow meow! If it’s a dead Mu, it’s a dead cat.

Then in the evening, Joshu comes back. This koan can be seen as a drama: a drama in two acts. The first act is the killing of the cat. In the second act, when Joshu enters and then walks off, he is not only bringing the cat alive, as Nansen had done in his way. In that act of putting the shoe on his head he was bringing all those dead monks alive. And we also must see that Act I and Act II go together. What is necessary for that first act to acquire ultimate meaning is Joshu’s act. We could say it is like the drama of Jesus being betrayed by Judas. Without having been betrayed by Judas, Jesus never could have been resurrected. And the drama of Christ, as I understand it, is his death and resurrection: the two go together. Actually, you can think of this koan in those same terms: the great death and the great resurrection, or the great revival.

The question then for you is, where is resurrection coming from? What is this great revival of Joshu’s? Why is he just putting a sandal on his head? Why does Nansen say admiringly, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved!”

Every mondo—and especially this mondo—is really a Dharma duel. Nansen lays down the gauntlet and Joshu picks up the challenge immediately. And notice how adroitly Joshu dodges Nansen’s thrust, which was the same kind of thrust that he presented to the monks. But Joshu is too nimble: he sidesteps it. In what sense does he do so by putting his sandal on his head?

Consider for a moment what it means to put a sandal on your head. Sane people don’t do that. Ordinary people don’t. What then is Joshu indicating by this act?

In Zen it is said that the highest truth is beyond knowing. How so? Because our True Nature is free from all knowing and not-knowing. It surpasses all concepts of right and wrong, of this and that—“cat has the Buddha nature,” “cat doesn’t have the Buddha nature”… “dog has the Buddha nature,” “dog doesn’t have the Buddha nature”… “is the enlightened person subject to the law of cause and effect, or is he not?” In every one of these ideas we are obscuring the wholeness of our True Nature. Nansen with one stroke cuts out all of these delusions of the monks. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, he cuts out the cancer of this contentious mind.

And then we have Joshu, who heals the wound completely. We see here what a great monk he is. People without understanding may see all this as a kind of a silly play involving the unnecessary killing of a cat. R.H. Blythe, who was an anti-vivisectionist, carried on at length about Nansen and the killing of the cat. He said something like, “Nansen is a man who loved his teaching more than cats.” But that would be taking the text literally. To be sure, there was no actual, physical killing of the cat.

Now we come to Mumon’s commentary. He says, “Just say, what is the real meaning of Joshu’s putting his sandal on his head? If you can give a turning word on this point, you will see that Nansen’s action was not in vain. But if not, beware!”

Just imagine, here is how one of the greatest masters of Zen, Joshu, proved himself as one. The whole meaning of Zen is demonstrated in this one simple act of taking a sandal and putting it onto your head. No wonder that when the first Catholic monks came to Japan in the 14th or 15th century and began encountering some of the Zen monks, they were utterly bewildered. No wonder they wrote back about how crazy and incomprehensible these monks were.

Those who are really practicing Zen and get beyond words and concepts can see the profound truth that emerges here. “If you can give a turning word on this point, you will see that Nansen’s action was not in vain. But if not, beware!” Turning words are words that open the mind. What would have been your words had you been there? What would you have said? Of course, you wouldn’t have to say anything, as we saw with Joshu. Yet there are words that could have worked. “But if not, beware.” In other words, if you do not grasp the meaning here, then your understanding is incomplete and you are vulnerable. If you do not see into this vital drama of the great death and the great revival, of the sword that slays and the sword that revives, then you need to work harder, is what Mumon is saying.

Then we come to Mumon’s verse: “Had Joshu only been there, he would have taken charge. He would have snatched away the sword, and Nansen would have begged for his life.”

Of course, this is high praise for Joshu. We saw what Joshu did, and there are other things that could’ve been done, But he would have seized the initiative; he would not have sat on his hands the way the monks did. “And Nansen would’ve begged for his life.” What does that mean?

Nansen already was a highly developed master. Would he have gotten down on his knees and begged Joshu, “Please don’t turn your knife on me”? Obviously, no. It means that Nansen would have been put on the defensive, forced to make another thrust. They say in dueling that the first clear thrust is the most important. This establishes the initiative. For Joshu to have parried that first thrust would have compelled Nansen to affirm his Zen. To present our True Nature in all of our actions is part of Zen training.

There are other interpretations of this. Here’s a simple one: had Joshu been there, the whole drama would’ve taken a different turn. Undoubtedly it would have.

This koan goes to the heart of sesshin, about staying wholeheartedly engaged in the Mu-ing and the questioning. Whether you have seen into Mu or not, this is the affirmation of your True Nature. And from grasping the koan comes the ability to demonstrate the koan. If we are not fully absorbed in the koan, we are not full absorbed in whatever we are doing. You must be absolutely one with Mu. When there isn’t room for so much as a hair between you and Mu, or counting or following the breath, or shikantaza, if you’re absolutely one with the sitting, without a thought in your head—and yet you are not asleep, or daydreaming—this is the affirmation of the fundamental Buddha mind.

It is that state that sparks sudden perception. The perception may be shallow; it may be deep. It takes place suddenly: one is doing something, or an unexpected noise is heard, or there is some kind of incursion on the part of the teacher, verbally or physically, and suddenly there is a turning of the mind. But that movement cannot take place until the clinging mind, the mind of self-concern, has been exhausted. When it has been released and there is this Mu-samadhi, then there can come true awakening. / / /


Small photo of Roshi Philip KapleauKoan Commentary by Roshi Philip Kapleau (1912–2004) on the sixth day of the seven-day sesshin, May 1975