The Ritual Cat. Why do we do the things we do?


A great Zen Buddhist master, in charge of the Mayu Kagi monastery always kept his pet cat by his side during meditation classes. One day, the master – who was already quite old – passed away. His best disciple who took his place asked ‘What shall we do with the cat?’  Out of respect for their old instructor, the new master decided to allow the cat to continue attending the Zen Buddhist classes.

Word began to spread through the land about the cat who took part in meditation sessions. Many years passed and the cat died. However, as the students at the monastery were so used to its presence, they soon found another cat. Meanwhile, the other temples began introducing cats in their meditation sessions believing that the cat was truly responsible for the fame and excellence of Mayu Kagi’s teaching. A generation passed, and technical treatises began to appear about the importance of the cat in Zen meditation. A university professor developed a thesis – which was accepted by the academic community – that felines have the ability to increase human concentration, and eliminate negative energy. And so, for a whole century, the cat was considered an essential part of Zen Buddhist studies in that region.

Finally, a master who was allergic to cat hair appeared, and decided to remove the cat from his daily exercises with the students. This move was met with stiff resistance.  But the master finally prevailed and the students continued to make the same progress, in spite of the absence of the cat. Little by little, the monasteries – always in search of new ideas, and already tired of having to feed so many cats – began eliminating the animals from the classes. In twenty years new revolutionary theories began to appear – with very convincing titles such as “The Importance of Meditating Without a Cat”, or “Balancing the Zen Universe by Will Power Alone, Without the Help of Animals”. Another century passed, and the cat withdrew completely from the meditation rituals in that region. 

However, only two hundred years were necessary for everything to return to normal – because during all this time, no one asked why the cat was there.

Rituals! Rituals! Rituals and false beliefs! Our daily lives are dictated by numerous rituals- some innocuous, some grave, some out of necessity and some one might consider downright absurd.

Sometimes rituals and false beliefs, as this story depicts, are like the game of Chinese Whisper played as a child. One kid whispers something into another kids ear, and then the message is passed along from one kid to the next. By the time it gets to the last kid, the message isn’t anything like the way it was when it started. The meaning of why something was relevantly done longtime ago is lost in translation over time!

Many rituals, despite their absurdity, enhance people’s confidence in their abilities and they motivate greater effort – and improved performance. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game. Wade Boggs, the Boston Red Sox baseball player, woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 117 ground balls in practice, took batting practice at 5:17, and ran sprints at 7:17.

Similarly, rituals like the mourning rituals dictated by various religions are meant to places loss and grief in the communal context of family and friends and thus alleviate grief and suffering. For instance the ritual of “sitting Shiva” among the Jewish immediately after burial is one that comes to mind. In this state which lasts for seven days, first degree relatives of the dead traditionally gather in one home and receive visitors. As part of mourning, Hindu rituals encourage the removal of hair during mourning, while growing hair in the form of a beard is the preferred ritual for Jewish males. Rituals also helped people deal with uncertainties and fears from forces beyond ones control. The Aztecs and Mayan culture viewed human sacrifice as the ultimate offering of blood to their deities as a way to deal with the uncertainties of renewal of the harvest and life cycles. Similarly, carrying out certain rituals, like the lighting of a candle in holy shrines, making specific offerings to deities and fasting give comfort and help deal with uncertainties in our lives.

In all, rituals permeate across almost every aspect of our lives.

The more important questions, however is whether our own minds are attuned to discriminate the innocuous beliefs from the grave and ‘whether we can see things as they really are?’ It is easy for a non-discriminative mind to take many things for face value and continue to live in the world of false beliefs. For example, one may vociferously profess the superiority of ones religious beliefs or approach to spiritual elevation over someone elses and have a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. In doing so it is easy to shut ourselves to  endless possibilities that may exist.

The question which arises is how can we keep an open mind?

The words of two influential thinkers of the 20th century may give some guidance on this thought. George Gurdjieff, the Russian philosopher and spiritual teacher was given a thought recipe for such discrimination early in his life by one of his mentors. He was taught that there exists two feelings of moralities- the first one is the objective feeling of morality. These are connected with certain general, orderly and immutable moral laws, established over the centuries, in accordance both chemically and physically with human circumstances and nature, and do not change across cultures and only broaden over the course of time.They form the basis of human conscience and it is by this conscience that objective morality, in its turn, is maintained. Some may be also called as the Lighthouse Principle. The other is the subjective feeling of morality, which are invented by man and will differ with different periods, people, place. These are formed on the basis of a mans own experience and personal qualities, his personal observations, a sense of justice entirely his own. It creates a personal concept of morality, on the basis of which he lives. He carried this advice through his life ‘…you must learn not what people around you consider good or bad, but act in life as your conscience bids you. an untrammeled conscience will always know more than all the books and teachers put together.’

Similarly, Jidu Krishnamurti also spoke about how beliefs are a danger which must be totally avoided if one is to see the truth of what is. Truth is discovered in the awakening of intelligent comprehension of ‘what is,’the understanding of the actual unfolding field of consciousness in its moment to moment flow, “Truth is the understanding of what is from moment to moment without the burden or the residue of the past moment.

He adviced that ‘when you are investigating – doesn’t matter into what, in the field of science, economics and so on – the mind must be free, not be tethered to any particular concept, belief, but free to look, to enquire, to question.’ ‘We should have a rational doubt, scepticism, because doubt cleanses the mind, it freshens the mind, it breaks down the old habits, the old conclusions, the arcane concepts.” .’

‘… to enquire very deeply into the nature of religion there must be total freedom, freedom from all orthodoxy, tradition, rituals, faith, symbols. That requires, not courage, that requires a deep sense of doubt, doubt of everything that man has put together through thought what he calls religion.”

So are we willing to take this important step in self-realization?


GI Gurdjieff. Meeting with remarkable men. 1963

J Krishnamurti. Talk 4, Bombay, 27 January 1974Talk 3, Bombay, 30 January 1982Commentaries on Living, First Series, p. 19; Talk 2, New York, 28 March 1982, par. 24

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