Killing a cat

and predicting the "cat's enlightenment"  


There are several sources - both in print and on the internet - which "proudly" inform us of the following behaviour of a prominent Zen master, killing a cat.  

Killing a cat was referred to as a "brave" action: "Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces"  - as described in "Writings of Zen Masters" p.21 - (Penguin book).  

How sane is it to hold a kitchen knife before watching monks, and kill this non-threatening domestic animal? Is this action so inspiring that Zen practitioners proudly conveyed it throughout generations admiring the "brave" master?  Was not the described behaviour of that master - a product of a mentally sick mind?

This event is described in Suzuki's book (page 41) as follows:

          "In the monastery, Nansen monks of the eastern wing quarrelled with those of the western wing

          over the possession of a cat.  

          The master seized it and lifting it before the disputing monks said:

          "If any of you can say something to save the poor animal, I will let it go".

          As nobody came forward to utter a word of affirmation, Nansen cut the cat in two -

          thus putting an end to an unproductive quarrelling over "yours" and "mine".  

          Later on Joshu, came back from an outing and Nansen put the case before him,

          and asked him what he would have done to save the animal.  

          Joshu without further ado took off his straw sandals, and putting them on his head, went out.  

          Seeing this, Nansen said "If you were here at the time, you would have saved the cat".

D. Suzuki did not explain why the other master put his shoes on his head (after hearing about the event). Apparently, putting shoes on the head was not just a bizarre act, it was a continuity of display of mental sickness of both masters.

But - being so impressed by this story of Zen masters wisdom - D. Suzuki has analysed the koan, finally predicting the "enlightenment of the killed cat":

          "If any of the lower animals is ever to attain Buddhahood, this cat surely the one so destined". page 41

The mentioned koan was also praised and analysed by Alexander Holstein in his book "Pointing at the Moon", and in his commentary, he says this:

          "Nature itself does not make any distinction between good and evil or right or wrong.  

          The cat was the embodiment of the clinging in the monks minds which was caused

          by the world's delusions and led to misconceptions.  ...."  page 158

What had a cat to do with monks misconception or attachments? It is clear that Zen monks lack understanding of what causes psychological suffering of people, what is the true cause of attachment? The true cause of a quarrel is not external entity or external condition.  The true cause for people's quarrels and egoism is within their mind of immaturity.  The purpose of a true practice is to help people understand the cause of their disharmony with life, not to delude them into blaming an external condition.

Suzuki and Holstein, modern followers of the two mentioned old masters (one who used the knife to kill the cat, and the other who put his shoes on his head) - Suzuki and Holstein - present this koan as something valuable and great.   As a justification, Suzuki says that the cat "will attain enlightenment", while Holstein - expecting that the koan will be regarded - by rational ordinary people - as a reference to masters committing evil action  - he says that Zen is not obliged to follow society's perspectives on what is good and bad:      

          The criteria of good and bad, right and wrong are determined by society".   page 158

Holstein prepared a defence for the two mentally sick masters - being that: Zen values are above society's values; what others (outside of Zen) regard as good or bad, killing or not killing, etc... have different meaning for Zen.

According to Buddhism, good is expressed in actions to remove harm and prevent pain and sufferings.  Society also considers causing harm to living beings as bad.  

The deepest background of circulating this koan is conveyed by modern interpretation of Zen practitioners - that Zen is removed from the values expressed in Buddhism and in civilised societies.  


Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

The Juvenile Mind of Bullying Zen Masters