How to Save the Cat

African Buddha in Green Raku Robe

With elections coming up, how might we navigate our engagement with politics from a meditation practice point of view? Interestingly enough, we already have a roadmap for this in a famous kong-an—Nan-ch’uan Kills a Cat. It begins as follows:

The monks of the eastern and western halls were disputing about a cat. Master Nan-Ch’uan, holding up the cat, said, “Please, give me one word and I will save this cat. If you cannot, I will kill it.”

There is another segment to this story, but first, there is this critical matter, “How can you respond to Nan-ch’uan and save the cat?”

A couple of pointers (for the kong-an, and for how to find our way in contentious times): 1) if you do nothing, that is in itself a choice of action and as Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer, points out, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In other words, if you do nothing, you are demonstrating an attachment to emptiness; you are evading your duty and the cat gets killed. 2) If you just join in the bitter fray, heaping slogans and slurs on top of everyone else’s, you are attached to name and form, and the cat gets killed. So what is to be done? It might be helpful to consider that the cat is a metaphor for our family, our neighborhood, our community, our country, and our planet–all of which are in our life’s blood. In other words, this is a kong-an about love, compassion and wisdom.

As Zen practitioners, we start with a before-thinking mind. Practice clarity. Keen focus and spacious awareness will help us to see, listen and understand the situation. What is going on, really? And what is obfuscation, dualistic thinking and distraction? If our minds are clear, then we can see clearly, and act with wisdom.

I hope all of us will handle language will care in these times. Emotions can get heated, but we don’t have to inflame them further by harmful speech or action. May we, each one of us, practice exercising a fitting response, moment by moment, as suits the situation and our own unique relationship to it. May we, each one of us, save the cat!