In Sojiji temple there is a picture of Nansen killing a cat

In Sojiji temple near Tokyo, there is a picture of the Chinese patriarch Nansen killing a cat. It illustrates a famous koan riddle. With his right hand he is holding aloft the glaring spitting cat, while his other hand grasps the sword.

The Japanese master Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen line of which Sojiji is a head temple, remarked of the story, ‘Buddhism can be taught in this way, but it is open to abuse and is best avoided.’

A great Indian teacher who saw the picture remarked that the cat represents the mind. One of his pupils was asked about it, and commented: The teacher did not care for the company of cats. In the tradition, the cat was the only animal which did not come to mourn the passing away of the Buddha.

Devoted to comfort as they are, they teach no spiritual lesson, whereas the dog, intelligent and self-sacrificing, has a lesson to teach.

The dog looks at you and his look says: ‘How wonderful you are! How I love you! What can I do to serve you?’ The cat looks at you and the look says: ‘How wonderful I am! How you love me! What are you going to do to serve me?’

The untrained mind is a cat, very selfish, but often loved and served by the self.

It must become a dog, loyal and self-sacrificing, recognizing the superiority of the true human self.

Then it becomes not only happier but more intelligent, like the dog who, recognizing the superiority of the human, is not merely happier than the cat but far more intelligent.

© Trevor Leggett

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