Tag Archives: Nansen

It’s a Matter of Choice

Given that Americans are going to the polls this week, the topic of choice has been on my mind. How is it that I, or any practitioner, can skillfully discern when and how to take action? How is it that I, or any practitioner, can find the appropriate response to a situation or a decision when I fully acknowledge the continuously changing nature of the world? If there is no ground to stand on, how can I take a stand?

This dilemma reminds me of the koan of Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) and the cat. It’s said that Nan-ch’uan saw the monks of the East Halls and the monks of the West Halls fighting over a cat. He approached them, picked up the cat, and said, “If any of you can give me a reason not to kill the cat, then I won’t do it.” The monks were stunned and said nothing. So Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in half. Later, the Master encountered his disciple Chao-chou (Joshu) and asked, “What would you have done to save the cat?” Chao-chou put his sandals on his head and left the room. Nan-ch’uan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

Whether the cat was actually killed or not, we may never know, but one message from Nan-ch’uan is clear – failing to respond to the moment has its consequences. So you must say something, but what? If you simply apply your preference, you end up arguing with the other side. But is there an “other side?”

This is where the distinction between decision and discernment can be found. Typically, there are two practices that practitioners apply to any decision-making situation – zazen or seated meditation, and the precepts or ethical vows. So how is the great Master Nan-ch’uan upholding the precepts in this moment?

Pointing at the foundational teaching, Sekkei Harada Roshi said,

The meaning of the precepts is that there is no separation at any time, that we are one with all things. In other words, the true meaning of keeping the precepts is not to interfere with now…

However, the difficulty is in the details. In fact, this koan seems to fly in the face of one of the precepts. It is the first of the ten “grave” precepts which intones, “I vow not to kill.”

One way to think about it is that there are three perspectives on precepts practice: the ultimate, the mundane, and the maintained. And all three of them are necessary. Taking the ultimate view, there is no dualism at all and no conceptualization, so there can be no killing and no cat to be killed. From the mundane perspective, however, there was a being with fur and flesh, and there was a sword, both expressions of the ultimate. And then there is the cutting itself, a radical act of maintaining and upholding the precept in response to the delusion that presented itself at that moment. These three forms of precepts practice correspond to the three bodies of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – and it is in the third, or transformation body, that we can study in order to see how the first two apply.

As Eihei Dogen Zenji describes it,

Carrying the self forward to confirm and verify the myriad things is delusion. When the myriad things come forward to confirm and verify the self, that is enlightenment.

That is to say, rather than deciding on our point of view and applying it to a given situation, we start by studying the way in which we are one with all things, and the way that causes, conditions and results effect one another. Then, an appropriate response will be clear.

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi puts it this way,

The precept of not killing life is not about restraint. It is about liberating our acts from delusion. It is concerned with awakened mind, which needs no restraint at all…

In other words, acting from the mind that recognizes the integrated nature of all things, and its manifestation in form and in activity, is inherently acting in accord with the precepts. There is no ground to stand on, and therefore no stand is needed. Instead, standing on no-ground we are an integral, skillful part of the great activity that is taking place in every moment. So, with this teaching in mind, I encourage you to put your sandals on your head, go out, and vote for a liberated life!

a monk's sandals

Practicing Patience with Not Understanding

Here is the link to a talk that I recently gave at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center:


My previous talks at City Center are posted here:


Next up, talks with the Redwood City Zen group on July 22nd, and with the Gay Men’s Buddhist Sangha on August 5th.