[I encountered this story recently and looked around, finding some varying versions of the Japanese and translations. My “tweak” translation below for the most part took out the inclusion of other translators’ elaborations. Maybe my mind is, more than before, in a place to grasp all these Zen things I’m running into lately, so the elaborations seem unnecessary.]
Neko no Myōjutsu written by Issai Chozan in 1727
There was once a swordsman called Shōken. In Shōken’s house, there was a large rat. The rat boldly ran around in the house in plain day, so Shōken attempted to catch it by closing off the room it was in and sending in his cat. Unfortunately, the rat ran straight at the cat, jumping on its head and biting it. The cat cried out and ran away.
Shōken had no choice but to assemble some local cats that seemed to be plenty strong, and send them into the room through a small opening. The rat was crouching in a corner, and jumped on and bit each cat that came near. Its fury was so great that the cats all cowered from the rat, making no further attempts to catch it. Seeing this, Shōken grew angry and grabbed his own wooden sword, attempting to strike down the rat himself. However, he not only swung and missed the rat every time, he had ruined his own walls and doors by the end.
Dripping sweat, he yelled out for his servant. “I heard of an amazing old cat living 6 or 7 neighborhoods over. Go and borrow it.”
When it arrived, the cat didn’t look particularly sharp. However, when they put it in the room, the rat shrunk down and couldn’t move. The old cat strolled over nonchalantly, picked up the rat, and brought it out.
Later that night, many cats gathered at Shōken’s house. They all kneeled before the old cat and said, “We are all well known for our skill in rat catching, able to handle even weasels and otters, and our nails are razor sharp. However, there was nothing we could do against that rat. How is it that you were able to overcome that giant rat? Please impart to us the secrets of your art.”
The Old Cat laughed and said, “Young ones, you all put forth a good effort. The only reason you met with an unexpected defeat today was likely because you do not know technique that is in accord with correct principle. Before I begin, though, tell me about your training.”
A black cat came forward and said, “I was raised in a family that specialized in catching rats. Since I was born I have trained myself with a view to becoming a great rat-catcher. I can leap over a seven foot screen and squeeze through tiny holes. I’ve always been talented at light and fast technique. At times I feign sleep and then strike out as soon as a rat comes near. Rats cannot escape me. I can catch them even as they fled across ceiling beams. I was never defeated until I met that old rat.”
The Old Cat said,”Your training has centered on technique. Accordingly, what stands in the forefront is your mind that aims (to achieve the goal). The old masters taught techniques as guides. And the technique itself was not easy. Within the technique, there is a profound truth, but today the emphasis is on the technique. Thus people create various techniques and polish their skills, resulting in nothing more than contests of technique. But once one can polish his skill no further, he is lost. If a person relies on skill and drowns in innovation, everything will follow similarly. The workings of the mind/heart will also have no foundation in principle. Emphasis on improvement then begets more harm than benefit. Reflect on this and innovate carefully.”
Next a striped cat stepped forward and said: “I think that the most important thing for martial technique is how to carry one’s ki. I have long trained myself in its cultivation and development, and my ki is hard and strong, filling heaven and earth. I can face down my opponents with overwhelming ki and defeat them from the start. I can make any adjustment to change. I don’t need to consciously move, only move naturally, and even run along walls and ceilings. But that rat came without form, and went without a trace. I was stymied.”
The Old Cat replied, “That training works on the basis of nothing more than the force of ki. You are conscious of your own use of your power, so it is not spontaneous. Your thought and desire to not be defeated brings forth the opponent’s effort to defeat you. Furthermore, what to do when you cannot defeat something you are trying to defeat? It’s never the case that you are the only one that is strong and all of your opponents are weak. The ki that you think fills heaven and earth is nothing more than superficial force. It may resemble Mencius’ Kōzen no ki, but in reality it is not. Mencius can perceive very well and has the knowledge to discern matters, and is very solid. But your solidity is dependent on force and the effect is not even comparable. It is like the difference between an ever-flowing great river and the force of a flashflood after a night’s rain. What to do when faced with an opponent that is unperturbed by the force of your ki? We know the proverb, ‘A biting cat gets bitten by the rat.’ When a rat is cornered it forgets life, forgets desires, forgets winning and losing, forgets safety – it is in a state of ‘mushin’. How to defeat such an opponent with only force?”
Next, an older grey cat came forth quietly and said, “As you have stated, that type of ki power can be very strong but still retains a form, however slight. I have trained my mind for many years, and without force of ki or opposition, always trying to harmonize with everything. My technique is like a curtain surrendering to the pressure of a stone thrown at it. Even a strong rat finds no means to fight me. But that rat today, it wouldn’t yield to force, respond to harmonizing – it was almost god-like. I’ve never seen a rat like that before.”
The Old Cat answered, “The harmonizing you speak of is not of nature but instead something that is contrived. Accordingly, even if you strive to concentrate, if there is even the faintest wavering in you, the opponent will know it. Also, if one harmonizes based on one’s own mind, the energy will be tainted and spoiled. If you act based on thinking, then you obstruct the sense of naturalness/spontaneity, and subtlety cannot arise. Do not think or do. Move in accord with sense, and you will no longer have any enemies on this earth. This is not to say that the training that each one of you is doing is of no use. Where there is energy (‘ki’), there is principle, and where there is principle, there is energy (‘ki’). There is principle in action, and energy is something that comprises physical function. When that energy becomes magnanimous, it can respond to things without limit. So, when harmonizing, without strength, even if one is hit by a rock, one will not break. The slightest thought makes everything an intention. Accordingly, the enemy will never respect you. There is no need to use any technique. It is enough to be ‘mushin’, and respond spontaneously. There is no end to the path, so one must not take what I say to be the enlightening secret.
Long ago, there was a cat in my neighborhood who seemed to do nothing but nap all day. That cat looked spiritless, almost like a cat made out of wood. No one ever saw it catch a rat, yet wherever it was and wherever it went, no rat could be seen. I once visited the cat and asked it to explain. I asked four times but it remained silent each time. It was not that the cat did not want to answer but rather that it did not have a reason to answer. What I understood from that was, those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know. That cat forgot about itself, forgot about things, and had returned to a “non-thing”. It was truly “Divine, martial – no killing”. I was nowhere in comparison to that cat.
Shōken, who had been listening in on this dreamlike conversation, could not contain himself and suddenly burst in. “I have been training in swordsmanship for many years but I have yet to master its essence. Tonight I have learned about many different kinds of training and learned much.If I may request, please guide me to the innermost secrets.”
The Old Cat replied: “I cannot. I am just an animal that catches rats for food. What do I know about human affairs? I have heard this, though. Swordsmanship is not to attain victory over an opponent, but to face change and illuminate life and death. Warriors continually develop their mind/heart, and must train their technique. Accordingly, if one can, through the principle of life and death, without using deliberation, innovation, and without doubt and hesitation, make peaceful the heart/mind and energy, and make usual being quiet and at ease, then one can freely respond to change. Conversely, if one does not have such a mind, then there arises form, and thus enemies are born; one must face them and fight them, and no longer be able to respond to change. That is, one’s mind first falls into the realm of death and loses its vitality – how to then decide a duel optimally? Even if one wins, it is nothing more than luck, and not related to true swordsmanship.
‘No-mind, no-object’ does not mean vacant. The mind does not originally have a form, and accordingly cannot harbor objects. If there is even a hint of harboring something, one’s energy tends to gather there, and if that happens it becomes difficult to be magnanimous, open, and free. What is tended toward becomes excessive, and where it is not so there arises a lacking. Where there is excess the momentum causes spillage, and where there is lacking, it becomes useless, and together, the ability to respond to change is lost. The no-mind, no-object that I speak of is not accumulating, not gathering; there is no enemy, there is no self; simply put, there is no thought, no doing, quietly not moving, sensing what is on the earth, and finally, proceeding – it is close to mastering this principle.”
Shōken then asked,”What is meant by ‘There is no enemy, there is no self’?”
The Old Cat replied, “Because there is a self, there is an enemy. If there is no self, there is no enemy. The enemy is the same as yin-yang, fire-water. Everything that has a form has relativity/opposition. If there is no image (form) in one’s mind, then of course there is nothing relative, and no reason to fight. This is called, ‘No enemy, no self’. Forget both object and self, quietly and easily, rid yourself of all delusion and attachment, harmonize, and become one. Even if one destroys the form of the enemy, the self does not know it. No, it’s not that it doesn’t know, it’s that there is no mind there and so there is just moving in accordance with sense. According to this mind, ‘The world is my world, I am the world”’ – there is no captivation by right-wrong, like-dislike. Everything comes from one’s mind – pain-pleasure, gain-loss; the broad universe is not something to be sought outside one’s mind. The ancients said, ‘A speck of dust in the eye can make the three worlds look narrow. Free your mind.’ That is, if you have dust in your eye, you can’t open your eye. There is something where there shouldn’t be anything. This is about the heart/mind. The ancients also said, ‘Even surrounded by countless foes, this form may be smashed, but this mind is my mind.’ Confucius said, ‘Even the basest man cannot be deprived of his will.’ If one is perplexed or lost, that mind helps the enemy. This is all I have to say.
The rest is up to each person to seek for himself. One’s master can transmit technique, or tasks – then there is only to realize the principle. The truth must be realized by the individual. This is called self-attainment. It is also called, ‘Heart/mind to heart/mind transmission’ – this is found everywhere self-attainment is, whether zen study, mental methods of the saints, or performing arts. To teach is only to point out and help know that which a person has but cannot see himself. It is not to receive from the master. Teaching is easy, and listening to teachings is easy. However, it is difficult to find with certainty that which one has, and make it one’s own. This is called ‘kensho’. ‘Satori’ is to wake from the dream that is delusion. These are the same thing.”