K541 Nansen Cuts the Kitten by Sengai Gibon 仙厓義梵

Cut! Cut!
It is not only the kitten
But the two head monks as well
And even Old Master Wo!

Respectfully painted by Bon Sengai
斬 々
Sengai Gibon (仙厓義梵, 1750-1837)
K541 hanging scroll, sumi on paper 80.9 cm × 26.7 cm.

This Zenga depicts one of Sengai’s favorite themes, the koan “Nansen cuts the kitten.” (Case 14 in the Mumonkan and Case 63 in the Hekiganroku.) The two head monks—from the eastern hall and from the western hall respectively—represented rival factions in the monastery so they were always quibbling about something. In this case, the two were arguing about a kitten, perhaps trying to gauge its Buddha-nature in relation to Jōshū’s puppy. Nansen (南泉, Nan-chuan, 747-834) seized the kitten, pulled out the sickle he carried to cut weeds and demanded a word of Zen from one or both of them. When a good reply was not forthcoming Nansen sliced the kitten in two. In fact, Sengai’s inscription says everyone was cut in half—the poor kitten, the two monks, and even the old master Wo (Nansen) himself. Nansen’s knife is the sword that cuts through all delusions. It is a shocking Zen tale—notice the kitten’s alarmed expression—and an effective koan (what would we have done if we were one of the monks?) However, one wonders if it was literally true—monks are prohibited from having weapons so what was Nansen doing walking around the temple grounds with a butcher knife? Waiting for a chance to dispatch a helpless sentient being for the cause of Zen enlightenment? Sengai’s portrayal of the subject is more comical than grim but this Zenga is still a potent reminder of the life-and-death nature of Zen practice.