The big rat - a Zen story
Human beings are not like lions and tigers, so the way of Budo must not be like them either. The tiger and lion are strong, and their instinct and desire make them want to win. It never occurs to them to abandon their ego. But human beings can go beyond the ego and death. In Budo, they must become even stronger than the lion or the tiger, and discard the animal instinct that clings to the human spirit.
Two hundred years ago in Japan, before the Meiji restoration, there was a martial artist called Shoken, whose home was infested by a huge rat. Every night this big rat came to Shokens 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 far-springing 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 could no more over come the rat than the other two. Shoken then borrowed yet another cat, the fourth one; 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 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. Youre a martial arts master, so you ask the questions; Im 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 strong.
The black cat answered, Then why didnt you win? The alley cat answered, Really, I am very strong; I know hundreds of techniques for catching rats. My claws are stout and my muscles are far springing. But that rat was no ordinary rat.
The black cat said, So your strength and your technique arent equal to those of the rat. Maybe you do have a lot of muscles and a lot of waza, 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 thats 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 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. Thats why the rat is stronger than you. Even if you have 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 waza and spent all his time practicing meditation. 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, Youre extremely intelligent, and strong too. But you couldnt beat the rat because you had an object, so the rats intuition was more effective than yours. The instant you walked into the room it understood your attitude and state of mind, and thats why you could not overcome it. You were unable to harmonise your strength, your technique, and your active consciousness; they remain 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 theres certainly nothing strong looking about him! He sleeps all day. He never eats meat or even fish, nothing but genmai (rice soup), although sometimes he does take a drop of sake. And he has never caught a single rat because theyre all scared to death of him and scatter like leaves in the wind. He could chase them away in his sleep. This old greybeard cat is really mysterious and impressive. You must become like him: beyond posture, beyond breathing, beyond consciousness.
For Shoken, the martial arts master, this was a great lesson.