Two hundred years ago in Japan, before the Meiji storation, there was a kendo master named Shoken, whose home was infested by a huge rat. This is a different cat-and-rat story, and it is called „The cats’ martial arts assembly.”
Every night this big rat came to Shoken’s house and kept him awake. He had to do his sleeping by day. He consulted a friend of his who kept cats, a sort of cat trainer. Shoken said, „Lend me your best cat.”
The cat trainer lent him an alley cat, extremely quick and adept at rat-catching, with stout claws and farspringing muscles. But when he came face to face with the rat in the room, the rat stood his ground and the cat had to turn tail and run. There was decidedly something very special about that rat.
Shoken then borrowed a second cat, a ginger one, with a terrific ki and an aggressive personality. This second cat stood his ground, so it and the rat fought; but the rat got the best of it and the cat beat a hasty retreat.
A third cat was procured and pitted against the rat– this one was black and white–but it could no more overcome the rat than the other two.
Shoken then borrowed yet another cat, the fourth; it was black, and old, and not stupid, but not so strong as the alley cat or the ginger cat. It walked into the room. The rat stared at it awhile, then moved forward. The black cat sat down, very collected, and remained utterly motionless. A tiny doubt flitted through the rat. He edged a little closer and a little closer; he was just a little bit afraid. Suddenly the cat caught him by the neck and killed him and dragged him away.
Then Shoken went to see his cat-training friend and said to him, „How many times have I chased that rat with my wooden sword, but instead of my hitting him he would scratch me; why was your black cat able to get the best of him?”
The friend said, „What we should do is call a meeting and ask the cats themselves. You’re a kendo master, so you ask the questions; I’m pretty certain they understand all about martial arts.”
So there was an assembly of cats, presided over by the black cat which was the oldest of them all. The alley cat took the floor and said, „I am very strong.”
The black cat asked, „Then why didn’t you win?”
The alley cat answered, „Really, I am very strong; I know hundreds of different techniques for catching rats. My claws are stout and my muscles far-springing. But that rat was no ordinary rat.”
The black cat said, „So your strength and your techniques aren’t equal to those of the rat. Maybe you do have a lot of muscles and a lot of wasa, but skill alone was not enough. No way!”
Then the ginger cat spoke: „I am enormously strong, I am constantly exercising my ki and my breathing through zazen. I live on vegetables and rice soup and that’s why I have so much energy. But I too was unable to overcome that rat. Why?”
The old black cat answered, „Your activity and energy are great indeed, but that rat was beyond your energy; you are weaker than that big rat. If you are attached to your ki, proud of it, it becomes like so much flab. Your ki is just a sudden surge, it cannot last, and all that is left is a furious cat. Your ki could be compared to water pouring from a faucet; but that of the rat is like a great geyser. That’s why the rat is stronger than you. Even if you have a strong ki, in reality it is weak because you have too much confidence in yourself.”
Next came the turn of the black-and-white cat, which had also been defeated. He was not so very strong, but he was intelligent. He had satori, he had finished with wasa and spent all his time practicing zazen. But he was not mushotoku (that is, without any goal or desire for profit), and so he too had to run for his life.
The black cat told him, „You’re extremely intelligent, and strong, too. But you couldn’t beat the rat because you had an object, so the rat’s intuition was more effective than yours. The instant you walked into the room it understood your attitude and state of mind, and that’s why you could not overcome it. You were unable to harmonize your strength, your technique, and your active consciousness; they remained separate instead of blending into one.
„Whereas I, in a single moment, used all three faculties unconsciously, naturally and automatically, and that is how I was able to kill the rat.
„But I know a cat, in a village not far from here, that is even stronger than I am. He is very, very old and his whiskers are all gray. I met him once, and there’s certainly nothing strong-looking about him! He sleeps all day. He never eats meat or even fish, nothing but ge7lmai (rice soup), although sometimes he does take a drop of sake. And he has never caught a single rat because they’re all scared to death of him and scatter like leaves in the wind. They keep so far away that he has never had a chance to catch even one. One day he went into a house that was positively overrun with rats; well, every rat decamped on the instant and went to live in some other house. He could chase them away in his sleep. This old graybeard cat really is mysterious and impressive. You must become like him: beyond posture, beyond breathing, beyond consciousness.”
For Shoken, the kendo master, this was a great lesson.
In zazen, you are already beyond posture, beyond breathing, beyond consciousness.
by Taisen Deshimaru,
from „The Zen Way to the Martial Arts”