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Cat's and the Nature of Zen Practice

Many people who come to Zen are oftentimes familiar with the story of Zen Master Joshu's "Does the dog have buddha nature" question. Less known to those unfamiliar with Zen canon is a story pertaining to Zen Master Nansen. It's case number fourteen in a book called the "Mumonkan" or in English "Zen Master Mumon's Gateless Barrier of Mind." It's about the terrible misfortune a cat experienced when monks between two training halls fought over which hall was its rightful owner. In Zen world, Nansen's cat question to the monks is just as famous as speculating whether dogs have buddha nature.

Cats factor prominently in Zen training, just as much as dogs. We might be regarded as foolish if we were skeptical or dismissive as to how much so. We can learn a lot from them, regarding them as precious. This is especially true because people who fancy cat's have 0.000000% doubt whether they have a buddha nature. On the other hand, those who love and enjoy dogs often puzzle about that for years, if not decades. Bummer!

The above said I want to talk about a practical and relational lesson about caring for indoor cat's that doesn't show up for dog owners that also happens to sync nicely with healthy Zen training and practice.

The mind is a lot like a cat's litter box. If it's not cleaned... filtered... emptied... scrubbed... perhaps renewed... on a regular basis... the contents can turn powerfully toxic. The lack of such care can result in a kind of ammonia smell in the litter box so strong it can even hurt and give a burning sensation to our eyes.

As an obvious expression of buddha nature, a cat won't shit in such a litter box unless it can help it. I've seen them poop directly outside the box as an act of kindness to the owner, so they don't have to look around for the cat poop. Trust me on this!

I've known people to be a little lazy about these things and got to experience it firsthand. In fact, at a friend's house, it triggered a codependent relapse for me once. While they were going to the bathroom, I found the scoop and a trash can. I cleaned the litter box as an act of mercy for their cat and scolded them that if they didn't do better, I would call the humane society. I swear the cat purred loudly when I said that to my friend.

Squirrel moment!

Letting a litter box get like that is unkind to the cat(s) that are supposed to use it and the people that live in or visit the person's house. And this brings us to Zen and the practice of Zazen... or seated meditative practice.

Zazen is cleaning the litter box of the mind. The ego... with its endless supply of thought... and tendency towards self-referential thinking connected to fear... and having its sense of comfort overthrown... is shitting in the litter box of mind, all the time... with its incessant commentary about our past, present and suspected future. There can be a lot of crappy thoughts... clumped turds in there that can be scooped out through the process of zazen.

Taking up the posture of Buddha... rolling the shoulders away from our head... establishing conscious contact with our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual presence... we call-in our attention... to the space between our eyebrows and then allow it to drop just below our belly-button into the hara... our soft-belly which could be our true center of gravity, instead of having it between the ears.

The result is our mind is less toxic... and polluted by the mind's ammonia and other stinking thinking that can influence us to be unpleasant towards ourselves and others. So I suppose today, I'm inviting what one could call "Cat Zen." As a matter of not-so-trivial-pursuit in Zen, there's an actual shout I've heard some masters use that can should like "Katsu!" (喝) that can sometimes help people awaken to their Original nature. You could laugh at this, but ask any cat owner. It's a fact. And sometimes, that's where the laughter comes from. It's just so real and relatable to our everyday experience; there's no missing reality as reality.

--We Are the Practice Itself


1) The term "Buddha" could be translated as "Universal Loving Presence..." or "All-pervading loving presence".

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