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The Social Activism of Zen Master Nanchuan’s Cat

All this talk about violence and non-violence made me think of koans. Old Zen masters. And how their experiences may or may not help us address what right action might look like in social activism.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.” Case 52, Blue Cliff Record

Perception. How you view causes and conditions flowering makes a difference. An overturned, burning police car appears to be violent to one person, while another views it as a calculated act towards an object in the middle of an otherwise peaceful conflict.

I recall the situation of a fellow member of Occupy Minneapolis. He was part of a demonstration that eventually was deemed illegal by the cops. As they swarmed in to remove the final participants, things got chaotic. From our vantage point it appeared that our friend’s jacket was being torn off of him, and that the officer was aiming to smack him with a baton. The lifted arm appeared to us as a last ditch effort to block the coming blow. In the eyes of the authorities, though, this arm movement was resisting arrest – and later became assaulting an officer to boot.

The violence of the state is so pervasive, so normalized that it’s almost invisible to many of us. We get fixated on the obvious, gross varieties, such as police officers mowing down unarmed black youth, or soldiers dropping bombs on civilian populations overseas. And minimize, deny, forget, or simply never learn about all the more subtle forms, systemic or otherwise.

At the same time, activists tend to battle it out over responses to state violence. While some folks cling to a view that obviously violent actions are the only way to success, the majority of us spend our time parsing and categorizing numerous options, attempting to find a ground that feels ok stand on. Not only are perceptions of non-violence at play, but also how we see the very nature of things. Instead of aiming in the direction of peace, and then considering what actions and tactics might best address the current conditions, too often we are lost in attempts to solidify a moral or ethical position. Or swamped in stories of justification, revenge and/or hatred.

We see the log bridges, but the stone bridges remain difficult to grasp.

For those of you who aren’t too familiar with Zhaozhou, he’s well known for being a toned down, ordinary kind of guy. He wasn’t a flashy teacher, nor was he given to pounding on students, shouting, or any of the other “tools” of some of the old Zen masters. Here he is again, in one of the more famous of zen koans:

“Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: “If any of you can say a word of Zen, you will save the cat.” No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozho returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozho removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said: “If you had been there, you would have saved the cat.”

As a cat lover, I have always gravitated back to this koan, partly out of a sense of sadness for the cat and the people involved who seem so entangled. And aren’t we all entangled in something? Aren’t we all caught up in clinging too hard to one side or another, sometimes to the point where someone ends up spilling blood?

After several years of contemplation, I still don’t know what to make of Nanchuan’s act. At times, I’ve thought cutting the cat was just a metaphoric act, showing the ways in which the human mind cuts the world into dualistic halves. At other times, I have thought that he actually did kill the cat, and it was in order to help his students wake up. Sometimes, though, I think he just acted rashly, killing out of rage or some other heightened emotion.

Zhaozhou’s response has always felt more in line with the truth for some reason. He seems to deeply get the entanglements that are present in the situation.  And placing his shoes on his head, considered a sign of mourning, show a respect for and perhaps also sadness for what has happened.

 Was Nanchuan’s action a powerful expression of the dharma, or a mistake? Was Zhaozhou’s action a powerful expression of the dharma, or something more along the lines of passiveness?

I think it’s possible to see both of these actions as skillful means in service of creating a more peaceful world. If the elimination of a single life reminds everyone else of our impermanence and of the preciousness of our lives enough to slow or halt a brutal conflict, perhaps that’s the best decision in the particular circumstances. Or if the elimination of a life prevents the mass murder of so many others, again that may be the best thing that can be done. However, the ease of slide from wisdom to glorifying violence and bloodshed in the name of whatever requires a lot of sober reflection on such thoughts. And also is a great reminder of how important it is to maintain our spiritual practices and pay attention to our everyday motivations, hopefully long before facing such challenging conditions.

Zhaozhou’s response falls more in line with what the conditioned mind feels is “non-violent” or peaceful. Indeed, there’s even a sense of timelessness to it, as Nanchuan tells him that his act of mourning would have prevented the killing of the cat had he been there. And yet, if conditions were otherwise, calling for something more active in a response, then the gracefulness of Zhaozhou’s actions could easily be in service of oppressive conditions and more suffering.

Much of the time, conversations about violence and non-violence feel like what was happening in that monastery before the cat was killed. The eastern hall is convinced not only that non-violence is the answer, but also of what it looks like. While the western hall is convinced that some mixture of violence and non-violence is the way, and feels those other guys are trapped in idealism or wishful thinking. In fact, a lot of folks still seem fond of dividing the world itself into “East” and “West” and then assigning characteristics to entire swaths of diverse peoples, as if we all fall so easily into such categories.

The odds are that even in that monastic community, there were a wide range of opinions about what to do with the cat. Before the teacher entered on the scene, I’m guessing those opinions were on display. Suddenly, a power figure arrives and the whole dynamic changes. Once certain monks become confused or afraid or both in response to a simple request.

The cat doesn’t really care about all these opinions. It lives its life how it wants to, negotiating whatever is present as is. And in that way, we can view the cat as the embodiment of causes and conditions. Its life is our life in all its tameness and wildness.

I’ve met plenty of people that don’t really like cats. And when it gets down to it, the main reason for the dislike is that cats can’t quite be tamed. They tend to be stubborn, independent, even a bit unruly. Like our lives. Like the conditions we actually face when entering into the field of social action. Despite every last ounce of intention and practice we have behind us, within us.

It’s easy enough to envision Nanchuan’s cat romping through that monastery stirring up a bunch of calm, but ultimately stale Zen practitioners. And as I wrote that sentence, the image of our local rally the other day in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq protesters in New Brunswick came to mind. Specifically, the chanting, whooping and hollering in the skyways at the end. Disturbing the peace in the minds of the police and building owners. Cat lovers they are certainly not.

 While the monk in the first koan asking Zhaoshou about the stone bridge thinks there is a location to “go to” to reach nirvana, Zhaoshou’s answer seems to be an indicator that trying to find some location, or bridge, or magic entry point is off the mark. Every attempt to come with a final answer to what constitutes a violent or non-violent movement is, ultimately, also missing the mark. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make the effort, and especially consider how actions might be perceived by those on the “outside.” Those who might be sympathetic. It does mean, though, that we should endeavor to hold lightly whatever conclusions we come to.

Cats are plentiful, and they don’t suffer fools, regardless of what side you fall on.

Photos by author. 1) Minneapolis Idle No More Rally in Solidarity with the Mi’kmaq protests in New Brunswick. October 21st, 2013. 2) BJ the cat, unwilling to stay still for the camera.

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