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Zen and Ethics

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/26/2007
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
In Topics: Zen Koans

Using the important case of Momonkan case 14, Nanchuan cutting the cat, Zoketsu brings up the Zen ethical precepts. What does it mean to live ethically in the world? How can we respond practically and with compassion?
The Case:
Nanchuan 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 can a word of zen, you can save the cat.' No one answered. So Nanchuan cut the cat in two pieces. That evening Zhaozhou returned and Nanchuan told him about this. Zhaozhou removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out. Nanchuan said: 'If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.'

Mumon's comment:
Why did Zhaozhou put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this question, you will understand exactly that Nanchuan’s action was not in vain. If not, danger!

Had Zhaozhou been there, He would have taken charge. Zhaozhou snatches the sword And Nanchuan begs for his life.

This story involves Nanchuan and Zhaozho, two of the most important figures in all of zen- seminal teachers who set the style for the tradition. Zhaozhou came to Nanchuan when he was only about twenty years old. Nanchuan was lying down taking a nap and he asked the young monk, as they often do in zen, where are you from? And Zhaozhou said, I come from Standing Buddha Temple. Nanchuan said, Are there any standing Buddhas there? And Zhaozhou said, Here I see a reclining Buddha. Zhaozhou loved Nanchuan very much and remained with him for forty years- they were very close, as this story shows, and they collaborated together to create a good environment for the monks to learn the Dharma. Both Nanchuan and Zhaozhou figure in many stories in the koan collections. The dialog from which we get the name of our practice group, Everyday Zen, comes for a conversation they had early on in the time when Zhaozhou came to study with Nanchuan. Zhaozhou said, What is the way? And Nanchan replied, Everyday mind is the way. Zhaozho: If everyday mind is the way how can I aim for it? Nanchuan: If you aim for it you will be going in the opposite direction. Then how can I know it? It isn't a matter of knowing or not knowing. The way is vast and indefinable- how could you reduce it to knowing or not knowing?

The present case is probably the most well known – and disturbing- case in all of zen. We could compare it to a quite similar story that appears in the bible- the one involving the wise king Solomon and a baby.Two women are arguing over a baby, both claiming to be the mother. Like Nanchuan, Solomon says he will solve the dispute by cutting the baby in two, and giving half to each of the women- a very fair solution. One of the women speaks up immediately and says no don’t do it, I am not the mother. And this is how Solomon discovers which of the two is the real mother.

This story is a tidier and nicer story than the story of Nanchuan and the cat. People get very confused when you say to them, Say a true word of zen. They can’t help but think there is something to this, and it paralyzes them- they can’t say anything. They think about it. They look at themselves and say do I understand zen- no, I do not so I can’t say a true word of zen, and they become suddenly mute. A zen monk is not half as smart as a mother. A mother knows about love and devotion so she is never speechless when it comes to the welfare of her child. But the monks are speechless and a cat gets killed. If Solomon’s mother had been there she just would have said please don’t kill the cat- you are a zen priest you should not kill a cat because it is against the precepts and this would have been a very good zen word and would have saved the cat I am sure. If the monks had been reasonable ordinary human beings instead of stupid monks with zen gold dust in their eyes they would have just spoken up or grabbed the cat. But they couldn’t do it. Dogen in commenting on this case said, if i were Nanchuan I would say, if you cannot say a true word of zen i will cut the cat and if you can say a true word I will also cut the cat. This would be a less misleading challenge than the one posed by Nanchuan. If I were the monks I would say we can’t answer, please Master cut the cat in two if you can. Or I would say, Nanchuan you know how to cut the cat in two but can you show us how to cut the cat in one? And again Dogen says if I were Nanchuan and the monks could not answer I would say too bad you cannot answer and release the cat. This is what Dogen said. I myself would say, Master, the cat is already cut in two and then I would grab the cat and say to master Nanchuan, now you are cut in two. When Zhaozhou comes back later and puts a sandal on his head, this is the sense of it. Putting a sandal on your head was a sign of mourning in ancient China. so Zhaozhou is expressing, teacher do not fool me with your pantomime. You and I both know that the cat is already dead. You and I are already dead. All disputes are already settled. All things are empty of coming and going. Everyday mind is vast and wide, every gesture is complete, nothing is at we think it is- this is the reality we are living in all the time.

This same story appears in the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity, and the commentaries to the case in those collections say that probably Nanchuan did not cut the cat in two but only pantomimed doing it. Zen teachers do not commit murder, the commentaries say, even to make an important point.

In Zen precepts study it is always noted that there are three level of precept practice- the literal, the compassionate, and the ultimate. On the literal level we just follow the precept according to its explicit meaning- not to kill means not to kill, not even a bug. But on the compassion level we recognize the complexity of living- sometimes not to kill one thing is to kill something else. The network of causality is vast and wide and our human ideas do not encompass it. We recognize that precepts will be broken and we affirm that our guide will be compassion- to follow precepts not only literally but with a strong spirit of compassion as our guide, with unselfishness as our guide. So sometimes we break precepts in order to be compassionate and loving. On the ultimate level we recognize that there is no breaking precepts. This case involves this ultimate level of precept practice- the recognition that Nanchuan and Zhaozhou have, but that the monks lack, that there is no killing, that life can never be killed- or is already dead.

This is a point I am always making- our death is not later on. It is now- the now of each moment’s passing. And our death also never comes- when we die the we that we think we are just melts away but the we that we always were we always will be – this we remains, as ever, unmoving. The precepts and not therefore simply rules of ethical conduct- like laws to be obeyed. The precepts- our everyday conduct- take us to the root of what it means to be alive, take us to the center of the human problem of meaning. Nor is it the case that there’s a hierarchy of importance in the three levels of precept practice- with ultimate being the most important. In reality the three levels must be appreciated equally- and seen as they actually are, as all one level. We are always faced with the question whose depths we will never be able to fathom: what do I do?

But we should back up a little bit from all this: the monks in the east and west hall were having an argument about a cat. There is no further explanation about this but this part is very important. In most monasteries in old China the community was divided – some monks lived in the meditation hall, devoting full time to formal practice, while others were working monks- they did the support work to take care of the meditation hall monks- kitchen work, taking care of the grounds and other necessary business. These two kinds of monks were probably housed in different halls- the east hall and the west hall.

As soon as there are two halls and two functions it seems to be human nature that there will be differences in viewpoint and then we will fight over these differences. In Zen Center this exact thing used to happen all the time: I am sure it still does. The monks who specialize in work think the monks who meditate a lot are just lazy and unrealistic and the ones who meditate think the workers are just worldly and are not really doing the practice. This kind of thing happens in all monasteries and there is sometimes great strife. The Catholics had this conflict between the choir monks and the lay brothers that went on for centuries until after Vatican II they abolished the tradition of lay brothers.

The same thing happens of course, and much more tragically, in the world at large. Jews think Israel is their place, and their customs and traditions should prevail, and the Palestinians think it is their place, and their customs and traditions should prevail. On both sides there is a firm belief- not in their preferences, but in what they take to be the absolute truth and rightness of their views.In Nanchuan's monastery it may be that the working monks thought the cat would very very good in the kitchen as a mouser, maybe the meditating monks, whose minds were very subtle and tender and compassionate, could not bear the thought of a cat killing mice, so they were fighting over this. When there is difference and the true essence of difference is not understood and appreciated, there will always be fighting. None of us are free from being blinded by our own karma, our own view. So how do you handle this kind of situation? Which side are you on? What do you do? Nanchuan demonstrates in this case. What does he do?

We also have to ask-what is the cat, what is the knife, what is cutting? In zen the knife is always Manjushri’s sword, the sword of wisdom that takes life and gives life. It’s the sword that slices through emptiness- this means it cuts through duality- it sees that life and death and intertwined, good and bad are intertwined, Israelis and Palestinians depend on each other. It just cuts right through attachment to view, attachment to difference, and shows that difference and sameness interpenetrate and all views are compatible. The truth is beyond views- it is just life at is really is.

So Nanchuan does a little nonviolent street theater- he brings the monks up short and gets them to take their dispute to another level. Never mind the cat, he says to them- what is life, what is death, why are we here? And the cat- well maybe the cat is the monks themselves, or maybe the cat is the world. You monks are arguing, Nanchuan says, and look- the world is about to be cut in half right in front of your eyes. Wake up! Don’t waste time! Frankly, I felt this this way many times when I saw the monks of our temple fighting over a cat. I would think, the world is burning up, the situation is quite urgent: why are you wasting time arguing over a cat. I find it difficult when dharma students cannot just get together and work for the good. I have a hard time understanding it. But it happens; good people can’t get along and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I really feel that all the problems of the world are fairly easy to solve- it’s just that people can’t get along, can't work together, can’t harmonize their views. That’s the worst problem in the world. Cut the cat in twoliterally is :"one knife two cutting." This refers to the nature of thinking, the nature of discrimination, and the unity of consciousness in love that underlies all discrimination , if only we could see it. Everything is different: but also everything has one taste, one source, one substance. To find out how this is so is why we are sitting.

I think this case strikes to the heart of what it means to be a monk in the world, which is, I think, our challenge as Dharma students: to be fully committed to our practice, to make it the only thing in our lives, and yet to honor our daily lives in the world as our practice.How do we do that? We are all monks of the east hall; and the west hall. We are all activists and quietists. What do we do?

Thomas Merton had some very developed ideas about what it means to be a monk. There is a special function for the monk, he felt. The monk is a radical- she is apart from the world, does not go the worldly way. Monks are unusual people, They are and must be outsiders. This means they are not on any one side. Their commitment is not to one side or another side, but to truth, which means love. Monks can’t hate. They can’t justify their views as right. They always must come back to the center, to zero, to the present moment, the in between moment, beyond views.So although monks may live harmoniously in the midst of society, and may look, as we look, no different from anyone else, they are actually subversives- working internally and externally against the dominant modes of greed hate and delusion that make the world go round. Monks are living examples of an alternative to the self centered ways of the world. They are secret agents of a foreign power- the power of selfless love. Not that they have a superior attitude- in fact the most important part of being a monk is that one practice humility, is aware of one’s own mind and all the selfishness that arises in it continually- but monks see things clearly and are committed to higher and deeper ideals, and encourage others in this. Monks are the ones who are always there, holding up this great human possibility for all who would want to remember it. Monks receive suffering, witness it, and see the emptiness of suffering, desire, and all forms of winning. Their life is committed to the cultivation and encouragement and sharing of clarity and goodness.

I know a Christian hermit whose lifetimes has been devoted to the study of the writings of Simone Weil. Weil was an extraordinary person- a Jew who was Catholic mystic. Her life was a testament to this union within renunciation of the opposites of activism and quietism. She was a mystic through and through, and yet most of her life was spent in extreme political activism. She was a witness for peace in the Spanish Civil War, a Marxist who wrote for a workers’ newspaper and joined and was active in workers’ parties. She worked in a car factory and picked grapes in a vineyard in order to live the life of ordinary working people. She died of starvation during World War II because she fell ill and despite her illness refused to eat any more than the French resistance fighters, who were living underground, ate, and whom she fervently wished she could join.Some people think she was a little crazy and call her death a suicide. Some think she was anorexic and deranged in various ways and needed treatment. This might be true. Certainly her life was one of extremes. She did, in her Christian enthusiasm, seem to have a strong desire, as some Christian mystics do, to die a martyred death, as Christ did. Personally I do not understand such things. I think it is important to live as long as you are alive and then die when there is no other choice. I do not think it is good to choose to die, though I can imagine conditions in which one would choose that. Anyway, who knows whether many people diagnosed as anorexic or alcoholic or narcissistic or psychotic aren’t underneath or as a function of their disorders actually true monks if they could only get in touch with it. They do not need to be embarrassed by their ailments or overcome them- they need to clarify them, raise them up.

Weil always discussed her activism not in terms of justice or in political terms at all, but in terms of attention. This idea of attention was a key notion of hers. She defined attention as "a point of eternity in the soul." At one point in her short life (she died in her thirties) she was a teacher- which she undertook because she thought she might be able to help children develop attention. She wrote a very important essay on attention for school children. If you can pay attention closely enough, she thought, you will get in touch with the transhuman, the posthuman the suprahuman that is at the center of the human. Attention inevitably leads to love and love leads to union, she said. If you practice paying attention you will see that cutting the cat in two is cutting the cat in one- because the cat is already cut in two, because we are all different, we are all already one. So you do not want to be a politician, you do not want to take sides and engage in disputes. You want to appreciate and understand and you want to weep with the suffering of the world. You want to put yourself right in the middle of disputes- not with the solution or the right line- but just to say to everyone, wake up, take a look, lets take a look together, lets see what we are really all about as human beings. How to say this is not obvious sometimes. But as we work on our practice on the cushion it becomes clear that we must get up from the cushion and become involved in our world, in the spirit of oneness and renunciation. Although we do not know what to do we know we have to try to do what we can.

My old teacher Bernie Glassman has founded an ecumenical order of monks without a monastery called peacemaker monks. 3 core tenets and 4 core commitments:

1) not knowing-giving up fixed ideas about self and universe
2) bearing witness -to the joys and sorrows of the world
3) healing ourselves and others

1) i commit myself to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life
2) of solidarity and a just economic order
3) of tolerance and a life based on truthfulness
4) equal rights and partnership between men and women