Escaping the thicket of views
This week we're looking at case 14 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Killing a cat'. And before we go any further, let's get one thing clear: no live cats were harmed in the making of this story.
If taken literally, this story appears to be yet another example of the bizarre cruelty of old men with too much power, killing a cat to make some kind of obscure point - the same kind of men that would cut off a boy's finger if they didn't like what he was doing, or who would hit people with sticks as a way of asserting their dominance.
While there have certainly been spiritual communities both in modern times and throughout history where teachers have exerted an abusive power over their students, there are also many (less headline-worthy) communities where teachers are kind, compassionate and responsible, and do their best to help their students. In this case, I don't think Nanquan really hacked a cat to pieces, any more than Erwin Schrödinger really constructed a feline murder-box for his famous thought experiment. Rather, the cat is symbolic.
OK, so what does the cat symbolise?
The koan begins with a situation all too common: two groups arguing with each other.
In one of the early Buddhist texts, the Book of Eights (which some scholars argue is one of the very earliest teachings from the tradition), there's a discourse called the Kalaha-vivada Sutta (Quarrels and Disputes). It begins as follows:
In other words - we get into disputes because we find things endearing. We become attached to our own point of view, and then when someone else comes along with a different view, we feel the need to defend our own position or attack theirs. Elsewhere, the Buddha spoke of spiritual practitioners trapped in a 'thicket of views', unable to escape. And because of this self-centred habit - my views are obviously better than yours, and now I need to prove it! - we end up quarrelling, disputing, and experiencing lamentation, sorrows, selfishness, conceit, pride and divisiveness. Not bad for a morning's work.
Coming back to the story, and seeing what happens next, it seems very likely that the two groups of monks were arguing over some aspect of the Zen teachings (symbolised in the story by a cat). For example, perhaps one group believed that awakening happens suddenly, while the other group believed in a gradual process of awakening. (I've chosen this example because it's been a subject of great debate for well over a thousand years - a famous and much-beloved cat indeed.)
And so the two groups are arguing back and forth, not really getting anywhere, when the teacher comes to see what all the fuss is about.
When Nanquan speaks, his challenge is a bit cryptic - 'If you can speak, I'll spare the cat.' The koan doesn't say, but it seems likely that at least some of the monks would have been capable of speech - and yet nobody speaks out, even though Nanquan has threatened the life of their beloved cat! Perhaps we might imagine that Nanquan's presence is so imposing that the monks are all frozen - but, honestly, if your beloved cat's life were in danger, wouldn't you at least say something, like 'Please don't kill my cat!'
Again, an overly literal interpretation isn't going to help us make sense of this. Instead, however, if we bear in mind that the cat symbolises some point of Buddhism doctrine that's being debated, we can see that Nanquan is really asking something like 'Well, what was it like for you? Tell me about your awakening! Was it sudden, or gradual? Come on, speak up! You all seem to know so much about the awakening process, so tell me about how it unfolded for you!'
But instead of answering, the monks all stare at their feet. None of them can confidently claim to be awakened. In that moment, they're exposed - they're arguing about something of which they have no direct experience themselves. Suddenly, the certainty with which, just moments ago, they were defending their own position and attacking that of the other group, vanishes in a puff of smoke, and they're confronted directly with their own ignorance. The cat is dead.
The pain of discovering that we don't know what's going on, and the freedom of relinquishing views
Having the rug pulled out from under us like this can be a painful experience. There have certainly been times in my own practice when I've felt a sudden upwelling of dread because I know I'm about to discover a way in which I've been cheerfully deluding myself for decades. To make matters worse, I won't even have a new 'truth' to replace the old one - I'll simply be fully aware that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. (Socrates would surely approve.)
Nevertheless, even though it's uncomfortable to have a cherished belief ripped away from us in this way, in the long run it's actually a good thing - Nanquan is doing a great service for the monks of the eastern and western halls in this story. Indeed, a major theme in the Book of Eights mentioned earlier is the importance of not clinging to views. It might seem like a strange idea for a tradition which lists Right View as the first step of its Eightfold Path! But the Book of Eights emphasises again and again that, although views (including Right View) may be helpful expedients on the path, if we start to cling to those views - perhaps seeing them as superior to the views of others - we are setting ourselves up for quarrels, disputes and suffering.
We see this most directly in a famous and much-debated passage from the discourse to Magandiya in the Book of Eights:
'Sage, you speak
of not grasping
at any theorized judgments.
This "inner peace":
What does it mean?
How is it,
by the enlightened,
'He doesn’t speak of purity
in connection with view,
habit or practice.
Nor is it found by a person
through lack of view,
of habit or practice.
Letting these go, without grasping,
one wouldn’t long for becoming.'
The Buddha here suggests that a sage should orient toward peace, composure and equanimity through non-grasping. We won't get there simply by adopting whatever we think 'Right View' is and arguing with others about whose View is really the Rightest View. If the practice isn't personal and experiential - just as the koan says - then it's no use to us. On the other hand, we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater either - it probably won't help much to discard the teachings and practices entirely because 'there's no Right View anyway, so who cares?' That way will only lead to even more confusion. These practices and this tradition have survived for as long as they have because they're valuable. They work - so long as we don't get too attached to them.
(If you're interested in the Book of Eights, there's an excellent translation and commentary by Gil Fronsdal which I highly recommend. Stephen Batchelor also touches on these themes in his book The Art Of Solitude.)
What about this business with the sandals?
The second part of this koan, in which we meet our old friend Zhaozhou again (familiar to us from case 1, in which he replies 'no' to a question whose answer is clearly 'yes'; case 7, where a new monk asks for a teaching and Zhaozhou instead tells him to go and do the washing up; and case 11, where Zhaozhou asks two hermits the same question, and they both give the same answer, but he approves of one and not the other). This is perhaps earlier in Zhaozhou's life, when he's still living with his teacher Nanquan; but, as we see from his decisive - and mysterious! - answer to Nanquan, he's clearly well on his way to being the cryptic individual we've already seen in those past stories.
Zen koans have a bit of a reputation for being nonsensical, almost Monty Python-esque at times, and 'the one where he puts his sandals on his head' is commonly held up as an example of this type of story. It's certainly pretty bizarre at face value, and if we compare it side-by-side with the simple, sparse, direct language of early Buddhism, there's a clear difference in style. Nevertheless, even these seemingly silly stories contain valuable teachings, if we can wrap our heads around them. ('Unearthing' the buried meaning is part of the challenge of koans, and - at least for me - also part of the fun.)
In this case, we have a similar situation to what we saw last week in case 13, when Zen master Deshan was challenged, and responded not in words but with an action. In many of life's situations, actions speak louder than words, and a key part of Zen practice is learning to embody our wisdom, not merely talk about it. If all we have is fancy words then we're really no different to the monks of the eastern and western halls - it's when our wisdom guides our actions that the practice is truly valuable.
In the present case, Nanquan tells Zhaozhou about what had happened earlier in the day - two groups of monks embroiled in an argument that was purely theoretical for them, with no grounding in experience. Nanquan is almost certainly not just relating gossip to Zhaozhou for the sake of it - rather, it's a test, to see if Zhaozhou will also fall into the trap of words.
But Zhaozhou is too wily for that. Wordlessly, he takes off his sandals and puts them on his head, then walks out. What's that about? Well, normally Zhaozhou would wear the sandals, but now the sandals are wearing Zhaozhou. In a more modern idiom, we might instead do something like go outside, get a horse and cart, then put the cart before the horse, climb in, and start whipping the cart. In both of these situations, things are back to front.
In Zen practice, direct experience has primacy over intellectual knowledge. In comparison with some other traditions, which start with a great deal of study and only gradually introduce meditation practices, Zen likes to throw its students into the practice head-first, and only introduce sutra study after some degree of experiential insight has arisen. Arguing about the finer points of doctrine without the experience to back it up is, for Zhaozhou and Nanquan, putting the cart before the horses.
Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier koan collection, provides both a prose comment and a verse comment on each koan in the collection. Usually I don't include them because there's enough to chew on with just the main case, but for once I'll include his verse comment, since it neatly illustrates this back-to-front metaphor in yet another way.
Practising with this koan
If you'd like to explore the themes of today's article in your practice, here are a couple of suggested ways to go about it. One is, of course, to work with the koan directly - you could perhaps use a phrase like 'Can I speak?', or - a little more abstractly, and borrowing from Adyashanti, 'What do I know for certain?'
Another approach is to use a practice like Silent Illumination, being alert for those moments when we find ourselves caught once again in the thicket of views. In those moments, we have two opportunities: one, to practise letting go of whatever opinion we're holding, no matter how dear; and two, to notice the peace of mind that arises in the wake of that letting go. In so doing, we both develop the skill of letting go, and teach ourselves on the deepest level that letting go in this way is a smart move.
(No matter how you decide to practise with the koan, please don't hurt any cats - unless they're purely symbolic...)
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!