Neko no Myojutsu first appeared in a collection of essays written in 1727 by Issai Chozan. It translates as “The Marvelous Techniques of the Old Cat.”
There once was a fine swordsman named Shoken. His home was plagued by a huge rat who roamed around freely, even during the day. Shoken’s house cat was no match for the rat and fled in terror after being severely bitten. Shoken acquired several tough local polecats to combat the rat in a group. They were released in the house, and went for the rat, who crouched in a corner of a room waiting for them to come.
The rat lashed out ferociously at one cat after the other and drove them all off. Angered by the abject failure of all the cats, the master decided to dispatch the rat with his sword. Despite his skill as a swordsman, he could not strike the rat- the animal leaped great distances through the air, moved like lightning, and boldly lept right over the top of the swordsman’s head.
Shoken gave up in exasperation and decided to seek the aid of the Amazing Old Cat from a nearby village. When the owner brought the Old Cat over to Shoken’s house, Shoken was surprised at how ordinary and aged the cat appeared. However, he said, “Let’s give it a try”, and released the cat into the room where the rat was ensconced.
As soon as it saw the cat approach, the rat froze. The cat nonchalantly walked over, seized the rat by the neck, carried it out of the room, and turned it over to Shoken.
That night, the other cats gathered and gave the Old Cat the seat of honor. They said to him, “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, “Well, you are all still young and although you have experience in fighting with rats you still have a lot to learn. 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 training cats. I was taught how to leap over a seven foot screen, how to squeeze into tiny holes, and all kinds of acrobatic tricks. I was an expert at feigning sleep and then striking out as soon as a rat came near. Rats could not escape me. I could 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 exclusively on technique. All you think about is catching the rat. The old masters taught patterns and movements to enable us to develop good technique. And even the simplest technique contains profound principles. You focus on external technique too much. This causes you to doubt the traditions of the masters and to devise new tricks. However, if you rely on technique too much, sooner or later you will come to an impasse because physical technique has a limit. Ponder this well.”
Next the tiger cat stepped forward and said: “I think that the development of ki(life force) is most important. I have polished my ki for many years, and my spirit is very strong, filling heaven and earth. I could face down my opponents with overwhelming ki and defeat them from the start. I could immediately respond to any stimulus, any movement. I did not need to think; techniques naturally arose. I could freeze a rat running across a beam and make it drop to the floor. That old rat, though, came without a form. and left not a trace. I was stymied.”
The Old Cat replied, “The ki power you use is still a function of your own mind, and thus too self-centered. It is based entirely on your own level of self-confidence. As long as you remain conscious of your ki power and use it mentally to suppress an opponent, you will create resistance. And you will be sure to meet an opponent whose ki power is even stronger than yours. You may think that your ki power fills the universe in the same manner as the kozen no ki (universal energy) employed by the Chinese sage Mencius, but it does not. In the case of Mencius, ki is bright and vigorous. His use of ki power is like a great river; your use of ki power is like a flash flood. We all 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 body and mind. That force is as strong as steel, and cannot be vanquished merely by ki power.
Next, an older grey cat advanced quietly and said, “As you have stated, that type of ki power can be very strong but still retains a form, however slight, that can be used against you. As for me, for many years now I have been polishing my heart. I do not rely on ki power, I never harbor thoughts of fighting with an opponent, and always try to harmonize myself to any attack. When an opponent is strong, I blend and follow his movements. My technique is like that of a curtain capturing and dropping to the floor a stone thrown against it. Until now, even the strongest rat could find no place to attack me. That rat, though, was amazing-ki power and harmonizing power had no effect on it.”
The Old Cat answered, “Your harmonizing power is not the harmonizing power of nature. It is a projection of your own mind and thus limited. Any trace of conscious thought destroys your equilibrium, and a sharp opponent will seize on that opening in an instant. Thought obstructs nature and hinders function. Do not think, do not act; follow the movements of nature, and self will disappear. Without a self, there will be no one to oppose you in Heaven and Earth.” “It is not my intent to dismiss all of your hard training as worthless.
‘The Way has many vessels.’ Techniques contain universal principles. Ki power makes the body function and vivifies the cosmos. Harmonizing power enables one to blend naturally with any attacking force, even rocks, without being broken. As soon as there is the slightest conscious thought, however, contrivance and willfulness appear, and that separates you from the natural Way. You see yourself and others as separate entities, as opponents.
If you asked me what technique I employ, the answer is mushin (no-mind). Mushin is to act in accordance with nature, nothing else. The Way has no limits, so do not think of this talk of mine as the ultimate secret.
Long ago, there was a cat in my neighbourhood 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 dared to appear. I once visited the cat and asked it to explain the reason.
I asked four times for an answer but it remained silent. It was not that the cat did not want to answer but rather that it did not know how to answer. As the old saying goes, ‘Those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know.’ That cat forgot about itself, forgot about objects, and dwelled in a state of purposelessness. That cat actualized the divine martial virtue of ‘non-killing’. I am still no match for that cat.
Shoken, who had been eavesdropping on this dreamlike conversation, suddenly could not contain himself and burst into the room. “I have been training in swordsmanship for many years but I have yet to penetrate its essence. Tonight I have learned about many different kinds of training and learned much about my own Way of the Sword. Please teach me your innermost secrets.”
The Old Cat replied: “That I cannot do. I am just an animal that catches rats for food. What do I know about human affairs? I have this to say, though. Swordsmanship is not solely a matter of attaining victory over an opponent. At a critical juncture it is the art of illuminating life and death. Samurai need to foster this attitude of mind and discipline themselves in that spirit. Penetrate the principle of life and death, first of all, and maintain that spirit. Then there will be no doubts, no distracting thoughts, no calculation, no deliberation. Your spirit will remain calm and peaceful, unobstructed, freely responding to any contingency.
Conversely, if there is the slightest object in your mind, there will be a self, there will be an enemy, there will be opposition, there will be a loss of freedom. You will enter the darkness of death and lose the spiritual brightness. How can you face an opponent in such a state? Even if you win, it is a shallow victory, and not true swordsmanship.
Purposelessness is not a vacant state. It is formless, harbouring no objects. If something is harboured there, ki power gathers around it. Ki power is thus stifled and movement becomes stagnant, unbalanced, and uncontrolled.
What I call ‘purposelessness’ harbours nothing, relies on nothing, has no enemy, has no self; it responds to everything naturally and leaves not a trace. The ‘I Ching’ states, ‘Without thought, without doing, naturally settled, the Way activates itself throughout the universe.’ Swordsmen who understand this principle are close to the way.”
Shoken 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. ‘Enemy’ is that which is in opposition. The type of opposition that appears external in yin and yang, fire and water. Every object with form has its opposite. When mind has no form, there is nothing to oppose it. When there is no opposition, there is nothing to fight against. This is called ‘no enemy, no self’. When self and objects are both forgotten, there is a natural state of nonactivity, of no trouble, of oneness. The enemy’s form is gone, and you know nothing. This is not the same as being unaware; it means no calculating thought, and immediate natural response. This mind is unobstructed and free, allowing the world to become your domain. Abstractions such as ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘like’, and ‘dislike’ disappear. ‘Pleasure and pain, gain and loss’ are similar creations of your mind. All heaven and earth is not to be sought outside of one’s own mind. An ancient worthy once said, ‘A single speck of dust in the eye can make the three worlds look very narrow; liberate your mind and life without obstruction!’ (*) When a speck of dust enters the eye it can barely be kept open, and it is difficult to see anything.
When something that is bright by nature is contaminated by a foreign object, it loses its clarity. The same holds true for the mind.
Another ancient said, ‘Surrounded by myriad foes, your body may be smashed to pieces, but your mind is yours and can never be vanquished.’ Confucius said, ‘Even the meanest human being cannot be deprived of his or her will.’ When you are deluded, your own mind becomes your enemy. I would like to stop talking here. It is now up to you yourselves. A master can transmit techniques to illuminate the principles behind them, but no more. The truth has to be realized individually. This is self-attainment. It is called ‘mind to mind transmission’, and ‘a separate transmission outside the texts.’
While the teaching does not depend on tradition, it utilizes tradition, but still a master cannot impart everything. This is not limited to the study of Zen. From the spiritual training methods of the ancient sages to the masterpieces created by artists, all were based on self-attainment and instantaneous mind-to-mind transmission- a teaching outside the texts. The texts teach what you have within and assist you in obtaining it on your own and as your own.
A master does not really give you anything. It is easy to talk, and easy to listen, but difficult to perceive these things and make them truly your own. This is called kensho (seeing into one’s nature) and satori (enlightenment). Satori is to awaken from the dream of illusion. It is the same as keen awareness.