Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks:
If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.'
No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.
That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.
Nansen said: If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.
This is commonly identified as one of the challenging koans to appear in several collections. It presents several challenges, and there are many ways to approach the koan itself.
First, I want to highlight the effect this koan has had on commentators over the centuries, especially pertaining to Nansen’s violation of the first precept in killing the cat. Commentators have consistently suggested interpretations that alleviate Nansen’s guilt. Some have suggested that it is not Nansen who kills the cat, but the monks. Others have gone so far as to say that Nansen did not actually cut the cat in two, but only gestured to that effect.
In both of these circumstances, the commentator or reader is challenged by being confronted with the ‘bad behavior’ of a celebrated Buddhist master. I can’t help but be intrigued less by the content of the koan itself than by the way Nansen’s action continues to provoke disciples to ‘clean up’ or justify his behavior. How different is this from what we see and hear from disciples of celebrated (or celebrity) Buddhist teachers whenever some unsavory behavior or failure on the part of that master comes to light? What drives the impulse to clean up or cover up the perceived failure?
Second, I can’t help but compare this koan with the story of King Solomon threatening to cut a baby in two because to women were each claiming to be the child’s mother. When Solomon made the threat, one woman approved and the other relented and said that the baby should be given to her rival. Solomon perceived that the one who actually loved the child would be the one willing to let go of the baby to save its life.
The parallel is obvious, and this may be the ‘good word’ that Nansen demanded. Nevertheless, neither hall of monks would relent, unlike the Solomon account. Taken in this way, the koan challenges us by helping us confront our own desires and attachments and how they can interact with habit energy to leave us entrenched in an impossible position. Not only do we sometimes insist on having our own ways, but we insist stubbornly, and often lose everything in the process. This also engenders violence. In the koan, the first violence is between the monks of the two halls; the murder of the cat follows this first violence.
Finally, some commentaries (and with these I find myself sympathetic) highlight the inaction of the monks. No one answers. No one does anything. No one steps forward to restrain Nansen. If, as some have taken it, Nansen is actually demanding that some monk should speak a single true word of Dharma, which is impossibly beyond speech and concepts, then what was truly required was Dharma-action - someone could have saved the cat by simply trying to save the cat. This is what can easily happen when we are caught up in our own attachments, or in an addiction to ‘rightness:’ we forget to act on behalf of sentient beings. That is one of the instructions to readers that the Gateless Gate collection repeats from beginning to end: if you plan to approach these koans, you must set aside any fixation you might have upon ‘figuring it out,’ ‘getting the right answer,’ or ‘proving yourself.’ They are encounter narratives, not puzzles to solve or riddles to answer. They demand direct experience, and sometimes they require immediate action.