Once the monks from the eastern and western halls were quarreling over a cat. Nan-chüan held up the cat and said, ‘You monks! If one of you can say a word, I will spare the cat. If you can’t say anything, I will put it to the sword.’ No one could answer, so Nan-chüan killed it.
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 14
This story, of course, is not about cruelty to animals or even about shedding or not shedding blood. It is about freedom. After all, Nan-chüan was not taking a sword just to a cat, but was taking a sword to all of us. The vehicle for transformation is for us to understand all of this from the cat’s point of view.
Often, that is how koans are best approached: ‘How would a baby say it?’, ‘How would a rhinoceros deal with it?’ So in consultation with my Russian blue, Bluebell, we decided to do some research on the internet. We watched with great pleasure ‘The 14 Greatest Cat Videos of 2014’, including ‘Cat vs knitted lampshade’, ‘Cat steals salmon from freezer’ and ‘Cat is shocked to discover he’s a cat.’ Bella was enthralled with the show; I felt she was starting to really understand the koan.
She jumped off my lap and puddled in a spot of sun on the floor (Bella has always been ‘big boned’). She looked up as I approached her and started to talk about absolute freedom and the sword that both gives and takes away life. I told her that koans speak of a story that is beyond the rules of man and beast, and yet are deeply grounded in the compassion of the same. That when we understand that right and wrong are not different, somehow we allow ourselves to experience more directly the world around us.
Bluebell looked up at me again and rolled over on her back, indicating it was time for a serious tummy scratch. I killed her softly with her song.