Monday, September 15, 2014

The Samurai and the Zen cat

Working as I do at a library I come across books every once in awhile. Today, while processing requested materials, I stumbled upon a book called, roughly, Cats In Myth and Legend. Always in a state of deprivation for good cat stories I opened it with interest. Having only a small amount of time I chose a cat story from the "Trickster" section, a Zen cat story from Japan.

Alas, it was not good. Not good at all.

But there were some good things in its structure, and I thought "I can fix this story."

Maybe I can and maybe I can't. Who knows?  But I will endeavor to try.






The Samurai and the Zen Cat



There was once a mighty Samurai, a master of the sword, the greatest swordsman in all of Japan. So unstoppable was he with his sword that no one any longer dared stand against him. So he retired. He found a lovely, snug home on a clear lake surrounded by cherry trees, and he began a quiet life of reflection, practice, study, and peace.

This went well for a few short months.

But there came a day when the great Samurai's lunch needed a bit more tamari. He traveled to another room for it and, when he came back, he found a large, dirty, gray rat, sitting on his dining table, noisily munching on one of his soba noodles, and staring, with sharp little red eyes, at the Samurai Master.

The great swordsman took up his blade like it was a part of his body, and in a move that was faster than any human eye could follow, he brought it down upon the insolent rodent.

Only, the rodent was not there. Faster than the blade, the rat had scampered off with the soba noodle.

The Samurai was flabbergasted. No one and nothing had ever been quicker than his sword! Perhaps it was merely an off stroke? He tracked the rat down to a corner of the room (where it was now gnawing into a sack of rice), and, in a lunge famous for its elegance and simplicity, a stroke that he had once used to exactly bisect a fly, he sent his sword leaping through the neck of the rat.

Only, the rat moved! The blade split the sack of rice instead of the rat.

And so began a very unquiet week. The rat was everywhere, helping itself to the Samurai's very best food, chewing maliciously into his most treasured and beautiful belongings, and leaving its droppings freely in the food and bedding of the Samurai's once perfect little home. And all the damage caused by the rat was matched by the Samurai's failed attempts to exterminate the rodent. Walls were sliced, fabrics were slashed, and fine potteries were smashed by the master swordsman's errant blade.

Finally the Samurai accepted that he was overmastered by the rat. He needed help.

In the nearest town there was a Doctor who was known far and wide for his great learning. The Samurai was an old friend of him and respected him greatly. He went to him and explained his problem. The Doctor prescribed a very powerful poison that had no taste and no smell. The Samurai took it home and prepared it into the rat's favorite foods.

But no craft or guile could induce the rat to eat them.

So the Samurai went to see his friend the Hunter. "I am good at killing men." He thought. "But my friend is good at killing animals."

The hunter had just the solution. He raised hunting dogs and with care he chose the fiercest and most relentless one he had ever raised. The dog was a little Shiba-inu, but was said to be tireless in pursuit of his prey, an indomitable hunter.

The Samurai took the quiet little dog home, opened the door, and set him down. The rat dropped from one of its many warrens in the ceiling onto the kitchen table as if to taunt the dog. The Shiba-inu burst into action. There was a great flurry of animal parts, and screams, and howls, and gnashing teeth and claws. Everything standing in every room fell to the floor. The battle raged all through the house. The Samurai watched bewildered until, at last, the little dog was cowering at the the door, bleeding from a hundred wounds. The Samurai opened the door in pity, and the dog fled into the woods.

The rat eyed the Samurai, unperturbed.

"Maybe I need a different kind of help." Wondered the Samurai. 

The Samurai packed a small travel sack and journeyed into the mountains. He went to a remote Zen Monastery. He was brought to the Zen Master, and he told him his story. The Zen Master gave him an old, small, raggedy, rather sleepy looking cat.

"Oh no." Said the Samurai as politely as possible. "I, a very great swordsman, have been unable to defeat this rat, the cleverest poisons could not trick this rat, and the fiercest hunting dog was broken by this rat. This cat, with all my due respect, is barely bigger than the rat. I do not believe he can defeat the rat."

"And yet, this cat is what you need." Is all the Master would say.

So the Samurai carried the cat home. What else could he do? It took three days walking, and mostly the cat slept in his arms.

When the Samurai arrived at home he set the cat on the floor by the door. The rat dramatically dropped from the ceiling to taunt the cat. The cat looked glancingly at the rat, cleaned himself, and then took a nap. The rat eyed the cat warily.

And so it went. The rat ever with a fretful eye on the cat. The cat eating, and sleeping, and grooming, and stretching. He would look at the rat, but never would he make the slightest threat in the rats direction. The rat would challenge the cat, but the cat took no notice. The rat became more and more nervous and high strung. He reverted to eating in secret, always with an eye to the cat. His hair started falling out. He lost weight. Sometimes the cat would walk towards the rat and the rat would scurry away in a terror, but the cat would merely lie down in some chosen spot as if the rat had nothing to do with it, and the cat would have a nap.

The Samurai felt a house full of crackling tension he could barely place. The rat felt a house full of crackling tension and building terror. The cat mostly just slept and ate.

One night the cat was looking at the rat, without much interest, and the cat yawned, showing his pink tongue and his old yellow fangs. The rat, shivering in lusterless, patchy fur, half starved from nerves, finally broke down completely and went running off into the night, never to be seen again.

The Samurai petted the cat, and the cat purred.

It was the first time the Samurai had ever heard him do it.



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