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desert dreams

Exploration and discovery of Zen Buddhism by Deborah Saint, Sensei at Desert Lotus Zen and the Pacific Zen Institute.
Dec 5 '12

Nanquan Kills the Cat

When I work with a koan, I develop a relationship with it.  It will visit me again and again. World events can bring the welcome guest of a koan. This koan has been visiting for the past weeks.  I first worked with it in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.  Here is my writing from that time.

May 10, 2003

Koan: The priest Nanquan found monks of the eastern and western halls arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, “Everyone! If you can say a word of Zen, I will spare this cat. If you can’t say anything, I will cut off its head.”

No one could say a word, so Nanquan cut the cat in two.

That evening, Zhaozhou returned from outside and Nanquan told him what happened. Zhaozhou removed a sandal from his foot, put it on his head, and walked out.

Nanquan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared.”

Commentary:  You tell me, what is the real meaning of Zhaozhou’s putting his sandal on his head?  If you can give the turning words at this point, you will see that Nanquan’s action was not in vain.  If you cannot, beware!

The Verse:

If Zhaozhou had been there                                                   

he would have taken charge;

he would have snatched away the sword

and Nanquan would have begged for his life.

I love this koan.  It is satisfying to return to it as I sit four blocks from the White House on a rainy Saturday.  I understand how the teachers of old would enjoy an isolated, small spot.  This hermitage of an elegant two room suite with room service is a place of mysterious solitude.

Just days into the invasion of Iraq—still so clear in my mind and bones

Walking the the living room, the television is on—The News Hour.  I had turned the tv on because I was simultaneously drawn to the coverage and also felt a strong aversion to hearing of it.

Film of American soldiers—boys with sweet, scared faces, resolute behind their guns.  The march is uneventful until the troops turn on to the street and move towards the mosque.  Iraqi men emerge from nowhere and everywhere—angry, sad, resolute, raising fists, pressing towards the boy soldiers, screaming.

The young boy soldiers are ordered to sit. They sit.  The Iraqi agitation is not abated.  Chaotic noise increases.  I am afraid of what I will see next.  I do not want to watch what will happen to these children—I see my son’s face.

The reporter’s voice, “The officer gave a one word order.”  Oh, no! I cannot watch.  I must watch. The officer’s strong, clear voice, “SMILE.”  The soldiers obey.   Silence spreads through the Iraqi crowd.  They sit.  They smile.


My tears flow.  I smile.

Weeks later as I write this, my tears flow. I smile.  The rain has stopped; light floods my desk.

Smile.  Such a word of Zen.

Remembering the next Saturday; Washington D.C., Cherry Blossom Festival; Santa Rosa CA, Koan Seminar.  I plan a perfect Zen experience.  I will participate in the Koan Seminar from afar.  I will substitute cherry blossoms for Lingyun’s peach blossoms, walk the tidal basin surrounded by cherry blossoms, and have amazing enlightenment experiences.

Walking to the Tidal Basin, I cross the Cherry Blossom Festival parade route.  I am struck that it has such a sweet small town feel; parents proudly awaiting the arrival of their trombone playing sons, awkward baton twirlers with goose pimply legs, Brazilian marchers with hurting feet removing wooden sandals with spurs to continue with bloodied bare feet. Oh, I must leave to go be enlightened, on to the peach/cherry blossoms.


I love the pale soft pink against the gray mist; I see beauty in the gnarled trunks.  The most poignant image is the sweet, calm, wistful face of an elderly Japanese gentleman.

Halfway around the Tidal Basin, impatient that Lingyun’s peach blossom koan will not take me, my enlightenment is behind schedule.  I arrive at the Jefferson Memorial; how I love this place.  I start to laugh at myself—What am I doing? Who is this person wearing sneakers?  I don’t like sneakers; they hurt my feet.  I forgot that as I bought a  new pair to walk comfortably in D.C.  My feet hurt.  Do I continue around the tidal basin or do I go back to the hotel? There is not much difference in distance. I will continue on.

I ease up on the koan, not forcing it quite so strongly but still a little.  Cherry blossoms; the cat sleeps under the peach blossoms; daffodils and tulips—John’s word “War in the time of daffodils.”

I walk through the Roosevelt Memorial, from the end to the beginning.  Words from World War II engraved, so poignant.

Nanquan holds up the cat.  The shining wet granite speaks, “More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of all wars.”

My heart breaks, screaming—STOP THAT, STOP THIS— a mother crying out in pain for her children.

More than this…

More than this…

I return home to Arizona to work.  Two tribes are fighting over the scraps of water.  One tribe believing that the other has gotten too much; the other believing that the one is uncooperative.  I want to scream, “Stop that.  You are killing the cat.”

I put my sandal on my head, that ancient sign of mourning.  Everything is turned upside down. 

I am able to name the gentle sadness that I feel through the war—mourning.

I kill the cat.

I die with the cat,

I mourn for the cat.


More than this… .

More than this…


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