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The Koan of Monica’s Cat

April 19, 2011

Isis, my cat.

Her absence is more noticeable than her presence.  She’s a small, dark creature who weighs less than a gallon of milk.  Also, she’s a cat, one of those beings known for an almost mythic ability to appear and disappear, for aloofness and mystery.  Yet this particular cat is remarkable for making herself known. Wherever I am, there’s a good chance she’s also there.  She doesn’t hide under things, but takes the high perch.  When she enters the room, one knows.  When she leaves the room, one knows.  When she jumps from the desk to the bed, one knows.  She’s a very vocal cat, but then many cats are.  Even when she merely sits silently and glares with a golden gaze, she has such presence, as if she were larger or weightier than her dainty form belies.

She is so very present, in a way that only cats seem to be.  They are totally committed to whatever it is they are doing in every moment.  Yesterday, I wrote: There is so much left I haven’t learned yet, not only because of time or circumstance, but also because I failed to be fully present.  Cats have no such problem.

Now those who do not know them well might claim this is because cats have so little mind – they do not imagine or fantasize or daydream – and so cannot be other than captive of their senses.  Experience of sharing one’s home with a cat (or sharing a cat’s home, as it were) demonstrates that even these small creatures have imaginations the size of lions.  Every wrinkle in the carpet, every twitch of the blanket, every small rustle of sound is a new and exciting adventure.  One needn’t honestly mistake the feather on the stick for a bird in order to kill it.  However, they aren’t ruled by their instincts either.  When my cat bites my hand, then licks it, then purrs, she is under no illusion that it is a rabbit.  Rather she is fully present, even when indulging in play and fantasy.

I am convinced, beyond all reason, that she is a fully enlightened bodhisattva.

I have been told that animals do not have buddhanature.  Yet, there was a time not so long ago when this was not so.  Consider Zhaozhou’s Dog.  This is a famous Zen koan (Chinese: Chan gong’an) in which “A monk asked Zhaozhou: ‘Does a dog have buddha-nature?’ Zhaozhou replied: ‘No.'”  In this case, no doesn’t mean no.  Remember this is a koan, the purpose of which is to snap the questioner out of his or her preconceived notions and lead to enlightenment.  Would it be enlightening if Zhaozhou gave the conventional, expected, ‘correct’ response?  Not likely.  In fact, during the time of the Chinese master Zhaozhou Congshen (778-897) and later, when this koan first appeared in the Gateless Barrier of the Chan Tradition (Chanzong wumen guan) published in 1228, it was widely accepted that the dog does, in fact, have buddhanature.

“The doctrine of the buddha-nature of the insentient (wuqing foxing) first emerged during the seventh and eighth centuries [in China] and held that not only do all sentient beings inherently possess the nature of buddhahood, but so do plants and trees, stones and tiles, and even particles of dust,” according to Buddhist scholar Robert Sharf.  Pervasive buddhanature was believed to be a consequence of emptiness and it’s twin, interdependence.  Due to the emptiness of all things, their lack of inherent existence, and their dependent co-arising, not only is there no distinction between oneself and another person, but there is no distinction between oneself and an animal, a tree, a stone, or indeed between oneself and the whole of existence.  Therefore, it is not even accurate to say one possesses buddhanature, for there is no ‘one’ to possess.  Rather, buddhanature is.  It is all pervasive, like gravity or electromagnetism.  There have been objections to this claim, of course, but for the moment, let us follow it.

It is with this understanding that “[A student] asked: ‘Does a dog also have buddha-nature or not?’ The Master said: ‘It does not.’ The student said: ‘Everything from the buddhas above to the ants below has buddha-nature.  Why does a dog not have it?’  The Master said: ‘Because he has the nature of karmically conditioned consciousness.'”  Yet, later in the same record “[A student] asked: ‘Does an oak tree also have buddha-nature or not?’  The Master said: ‘It has.’  [The student] said: ‘Then when will it become a buddha?’  The Master said: ‘When the sky falls to earth.’  [The student] said: ‘When will the sky fall to the earth?’  The Master said: ‘When the oak tree becomes a buddha.'”  Finally, “[A student] asked: ‘Does a dog also have buddha-nature or not?’ The Master said: ‘The [road] in front of every house leads to Chang’an.'”  To borrow a current turn of phrase, Master Zhaozhou’s answers were ‘not intended to be factual statements,’ but to crack open the student’s mind.

From this perspective, my cat is as fully endowed with buddhanature as I am.  Or rather, we both share in the all-pervasive and eternal buddhanature of the universe.  There is no distinction between cat and I.  Both are empty.  Both are dependently co-arising. We are interdependent such that I could not exist as I am did she not exist as she is.  Therefore even this tiny thing, that so many would decry as insignificant, a cat, is karmically essential to my eventually awakening.

It has often been said that we are all buddhas.  We just don’t know it yet.  We are more aware of our suffering than of our awakening.  In a way, the felt absence of our buddhanature is far more noticeable than its actual presence.  Our buddhanature is much like that cat who cannot be found.  (Have you looked under the bed?)

Source: Sharf, Robert H. “How to Think with Chan Gong’an.”  In Furth, et al, editors, Thinking with Cases: Specialized Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History, p. 205-243.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Eliot permalink
    July 28, 2013 1:34 pm

    How can something whose sole motivation is the persistence of a worldly body be a bodhisattva?

    • July 28, 2013 6:25 pm

      1) How can anyone know that the sole motivation of a cat is the persistence of a worldly body?
      2) Why should we be the only ones to cherish our “precious birth?”
      3) Is not part of the vow of the bodhisattva to be born again into the mundane world to teach the multitudes until such time as all reach enlightenment? And to be reborn in whatever condition teaches best? Do not they also strive for a “worldly body?”

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