The mysterious Art of the cat

This is my favourite short story ever. It is written by Issai Chozanshi, an eighteenth century samurai. 



There was a swordsman by the name of Shoken. One day, a large rat turned up in his house. The rat would not leave, and took to roaming around the house, even in broad daylight. Eventually, Shoken managed to trap the rat in a room, so he could set his cat upon it. But as the cat entered the room, the rat advanced, hurled itself at the cat’s face, and sank its teeth into it. The cat let out a scream and ran away. Realising he was up against more than he had bargained for, Shoken went around the neighborhood and borrowed a number of cats that had made names for themselves as the best of their kind. He chased them into the room where the rat was making its nest in the corner of the alcove, but when one of the cats approached, the rat once again pounced and sank its teeth into it. When the other cats saw this appalling situation, they all fled in fear.


Shoken was outraged and chased the rat about, trying to kill it with a wooden sword he carried at his side, but the rat would slip away and avoid being struck. Furthermore, although all the paper-covered sliding doors were smashed down and torn in the fracas, the rat would jump and escape into the centre of the room, always moving with the speed of lightning. It seemed that sooner or later the rat was going to lean at Shoken’s face and give him a taste of its teeth. Shoken broke into a sweat and said to himself: “I’ve heard that not far from here, there is a cat that is first-rate and in fact unequalled. I’d better go borrow that one, and thereupon sent a man off for it. 


warrior cat


The cat was brought in and he took a look at it, but it did not appear to be particularly clever or even very active. Still, he thought, First l’ll try putting it into the room anyway, and so he opened the door just a little and put the cat inside.


The rat cowered right where it was, and was unable to move. The cat walked over in a leisurely fashion and dragged the rat away as though it were nothing at all. 


That night, all the other cats gathered at the house and, inviting the old cat to take the most honoured seat, all genuflected before him and, with great respect, said, ”We are all called first-rate cats. We have disciplined ourselves in our Way, and sharpen our claws to crush even weasels and otters, not to mention rats. Up to now, however, we have never encountered such a strong rat as this one. Yet you overcame him easily, perhaps by some personal technique. We humbly request that you impart your lordship’s mysterious art with us, holding nothing back.”



The old cat laughed and said, “All you young cats work with considerable skill, but you haven’t heard about the method of the Correct Way. Thus you have met a situation contrary to your expectations and have come to grief. Nevertheless, I would first like to hear about how each of you have trained.”


An agile black cat stepped up from the midst of the group and said, “I was born into a house of mousers, leaping over seven-foot screens and squeezing myself through tiny holes, so that from the time I was a kitten there was no quick or nimble trick I could not do. Whether it was the strategy of pretending to be asleep or suddenly exploding in a blaze of energy, I never faltered, even with rats that ran along the rafters and beams. But today I have encountered a rat stronger than I could imagine, and have gotten the beating of a lifetime. This is something I never expected.”


The old cat said, Ahh, your discipline is only a performance of skill. Thus, you still haven't escaped from the mind that aims at something. The men of old taught performance in order to inform others of the Way, so such performances were simple and contained a profound principle within them. In these later times, performances of skill are considered specialisations: various details are concocted, dexterity is inordinately refined, the ancients’ sayings are considered insufficient, and the practitioner uses his own wit and contrivances. In the end, it all comes down to a contest of performance skills; dexterity consumes itself, and for what? Those who practice refining the dexterity of men of little character, and those who specialise in wit and contrivances are all like this. Wit may be used by the mind, but it is not based in the Way. When one specialises solely in dexterity, he is at the edge of make-believe; and, contrary to what you might think, there are many instances of wit and contrivances becoming nothing but drawbacks. You should reflect on such matters in this way, and make great efforts.”


Next, a large brindled cat came forward and said, "To my way of thinking, we respect the ch’i of martial arts. Therefore, I have disciplined my ch’i over a long period of time. Now my ch’i is serene and exceedingly strong, and would seem to fill Heaven and Earth. I trample my opponent underfoot, by firmly defeating him and then advancing. Following the voice, responding to the echo, I control the rat and there is nothing I cannot answer to. I  have no thoughts or intentions for using a performance of skill, and my performance flows out on its own. I can just stare at a rat running along the rafters and beams so that it falls off and is taken. Nevertheless, this strong rat has no form when it comes, and leaves no traces when it goes. What kind of thing is this?


The old cat said, ”Your training can only function by depending on the power of ch'i. You are still depending on yourself. This is not the highest good. If you are going out to defeat your opponent, he may also be coming out to defeat you. And what about when defeat turns into no defeat at all? You may disguise your intentions to crush your opponent, but your opponent may do the same. And what about when a disguise turns into no disguise at all? How can it be that only you will be strong and all your opponents weak? Thinking that your ch'i is serene, exceedingly strong, and filling Heaven and Earth, is all just considering its form. It resembles Mencius’s ’vast and expansive’ ch’i, but in fact it is not. Mencius’s ch’i depends on complete clarity and so is strong and sturdy. Yours is strong and sturdy because it depends on power. Thus, their functions are not the same. They are as different as the eternal flow of the Yellow River and the force of an overnight flood. Moreover, when someone will not yield to the energy of your ch’i - what then? There are occasions when a cornered rat will bite a cat, contrary to expectations. Pressed with certain death, there is nothing for it to fall back on. It forgets about life, forgets about its desires, does not consider victory or loss as inevitable, and has no thoughts of preserving its own skin. Thus, its resolve is like iron. How could you defeat an opponent like this with the force of ch’i?


Then, a middle-aged grey cat advanced composedly, and said, “The ch'i of which you speak is fully active, but has a form. Things that have a form may be indistinct, but can be seen. I have disciplined my mind for a long time. l do not develop force, nor do I contend with things. l am in harmony with others, and run counter to nothing. When someone attempts to be tough with me, I meet him with harmony and so become his companion. My technique is like catching pebbles with a large curtain. Though you may speak of a cornered rat, there is nothing to fall back on to contend with me. Nevertheless, today’s rat could neither be overcome with force nor met with harmony; both coming and going, he was like a god. I’ve never seen anything like him up until now.”


The old cat said, ”Your harmony is not natural harmony. You think, and so create harmony. Though you intend to avoid your opponent’s sharp spirit, you still retain a small bit of intention, so your opponent sees through your tactic. If you attempt to reach harmony by inserting your mind, your ch’i will be corrupted and you will be approaching negligence. When you think and then you do something, you obstruct your natural perception. And if you obstruct natural perception, how can the mysterious function be given life from anywhere at all? Simply without thinking, without doing anything, move by following your natural perception and your movement will have no form. And when you have no form, there is nothing in Heaven and Earth that could be your opponent.


“That said, each and all of your disciplines are not without value. The meaning of the phrase ‘form and spirit are consistent’ is that the highest principle is contained within a performance of technique. Ch’i is what generates function throughout the body. When that ch’i is serene and everywhere, response to things will be boundless; and when you are in harmony, there will be no contending with strength. Though you are struck with metal and rock, you will not be crushed. Nevertheless, even the smallest thoughts will all become [conscious] intentions. This is not the spontaneity of the Way. Thus, when you face off with another, if your mind has not been subdued, the mentality of opposition will exist. What technique will you use then? No-Mind and responding naturally is the only answer.


“Still, the Way is not limited, and you should not think that what I say is the ultimate. Long ago there was a cat in my neighbourhood; it slept all day and had no vitality at all. It was like a cat made out of wood. People never saw it catch rats, but wherever the cat was, there were no rats in the vicinity. And this was true even if it changed locations. I went over and asked why this was so, but it gave me no answer. Though I asked it four times, still four times it did not answer. It was not that it could not answer, but that it didn’t know what to say. This is, as you know, an example of “Those who know don't speak; those who speak don't know’. That cat had even forgotten itself, and had returned to a state of ‘Nothingness’. The very spirit of the martial, it killed nothing. I am far and away unable to even approach that cat.”


Shoken listened to this as though in a dream. He went over to the old cat, folded his hands over his chest, bowed his head with deep respect, and said, “l have disciplined myself in the art of swordsmanship for a long time, but still have not reached the summit of that Way. Tonight, listening to each of these theories, I have attained the highest degree of my path. May I request that you point out its very deepest mysteries?”


The cat said, ”No, l'm just an animal. Rats are my meals. What would I have to do with the actions of human beings? Still, there is something l heard in secret. That is that the art of swordsmanship is not exclusively in making efforts to defeat others. It is the art of dealing with the Great Transformation, and being clear on the matter of life and death. A man who would be a samurai should always maintain this kind of mentality, and should discipline himself in that art. For this reason, you should first of all penetrate the matter of life and death; make no particular adaptations to the mind; have no doubts and no vacillation; do not use your own wit, contrivances, or prejudices; harmonise mind and ch'i; rely on nothing; and be as serene as a deep pool. If you are always like this, you will be completely free to respond to any change.

But when the smallest thing enters your mind, form will appear. And when there is form, there will be an opponent and there will be yourself. Facing each other, there will be conflict; and in a situation like this, the mysterious functions of change and metamorphosis will not occur with freedom. First, your mind will fall into thoughts of death and you will lose all clarity of spirit. How then will you stand readily and with resolve for a fight? Even if you should win, it would be what is called a blind victory, and this is not the true object of the art of swordsmanship.

“Nothingness' is not what you would call empty-headedness. It is the foundation of the mind and has no form. You should never be taken by phenomena. Once you are the least bit shaken by something, your ch’i will be drawn to it. And once your ch’i is even slightly drawn to something, it will be incapable of adaptability or openness. It will go beyond what you are facing, but not reach the place you are not facing. When it goes too far, your energy will overflow and be uncontrollable; when it can't go far enough, it will be clogged up and useless. In neither case will it be able to respond to change. What I am calling ‘Not One Thing’ means neither being taken by nor drawn toward phenomena, that there is neither opponent nor myself, and that there is nothing more than following phenomena as they come, responding to them, and leaving no traces.


The I Ching says, 'No thoughts, no actions; being serene in non-movement; perceiving and thus becoming intimate with the particulars of Heaven and Earth.’ If a man who studies the art of swordsmanship understands this principle, he will be close to the Way.”


Shoken asked, “What does ‘there is neither my opponent nor myself’ mean?”


The cat replied, “Because I exist, my opponent exists. If I do not exist, neither will my opponent. ‘Opponent’ is the name we give primarily to someone who stands against us. Yin and yang, water and fire, are of this sort. For the most part, something that has form will surely have something in opposition to it. However, if there is no form to my mind, there will be nothing opposing it. When there is nothing in opposition, there is no contention. This is what is meant by ‘there is neither an opponent nor myself’. When phenomena and myself have both been forgotten, and I am deeply serene and tranquil, then I am in harmony and at one with the world. Though l crush the form of my opponent, I myself will not know it. This is not ‘not knowing’ but rather there will be no thought here whatsoever, and I will only move in accordance with my perceptions. When the mind is deeply serene and tranquil the world is my world. There is no right and wrong, liking and disliking, or being taken by phenomena. Everything within the boundaries of pain and pleasure or gain and loss are created by my mind. And though we say that Heaven and Earth are vast, there is nothing to seek outside of our own minds.

An ancient worthy said:


When there is dust in the eye,

the three worlds are shut out;

When the mind and heart are without a care,

one’s whole life is at ease


“When even a little bit of dust or sand gets into your eye, your eye is unable to open. And it’s just like this when you put something into a bright and clear place where originally there was nothing. This is a metaphor for the mind.

“Another saying has it, ‘Surrounded by tens of thousands of the enemy, your form may be pummelled into small pieces, but this mind is still yours. Even the greatest opponent can do nothing about that.’ Confucius said, ‘Even an ordinary man cannot be robbed of his will.’ But when you are confused, that very mind will become an assistant to your opponent.


“I’ll stop talking here. You should now simply engage in self-reflection, and seek within yourself. A teacher can only transmit a technique or enlighten you to principle, but receiving the truth of the matter is something within yourself. This is called ‘grasping it on one’s own.’ It is also called 'transmission from mind to mind’, and again, ‘a special transmission beyond the scriptures.’ 


This is not turning one’s back on the scriptures. It is saying that a teacher cannot transmit this to you. This is not only in the study of Zen. From the ’Law of the Mind' of the Confucian sages down to the arts, ’grasping it on one’s own’ is always a matter of ’transmission from mind to mind.’ It is a ‘special transmission’ beyond the scriptures. The scriptures are within yourself; [those that are written down] only point out what you have not been able to see on your own. This is not something conferred on you by a teacher. It is easy to teach and also easy to listen to the teachings. It is only difficult to see that they are something within you, and to make them your own. This is called ‘seeing into one’s own nature.’ Enlightenment is the perception that you have been having a wild dream. An ‘awakening’ is the same. There is no difference between them.”