A Difficult Decision
The swordsman woke from his nightmare, bathed in sweat, and with tears running down his cheeks. He let out a deep breath, trying to slow his racing heart. The horrors of his dreams slowly fading, he sat up in his bed, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to find sleep again that night.
Waiting for the flashbacks to sink back into his subconscious, he sat there for a while, and finally he rose from bed and, using the light of the moon, found his lamp and lit it.
“Nightmares again?” his cat said, already knowing the answer, but also knowing that in part the swordsman valued his companionship.
The swordsman began to clean up around his house, starting the day’s chores early. It wasn’t time for breakfast yet, but there was still plenty that could be done before the sun rose later that morning.
“I have been thinking,” he said to the cat, “about the peace of that Marvellous Old Cat.”
He didn’t have to say to which marvellous old cat he was referring. Both of them, despite the months that had passed since, regularly discussed the events that I have recounted in the first part of this tale. The cat watched him silently, waiting for him to go on, in the way that cats do.
“I am not sure that I can keep going on like this. I need to find someone who can help me, and it seems to me that that old Kung Fu Master Cat had passed beyond internal conflict and truly found peace.” Pausing, because the words were difficult to say, “Maybe he would be prepared to help me.”
The cat looked at him, his eyes large in the semi-darkness, and replied. “Sometimes truly the bravest thing is to ask for help. I will proudly stand beside you on this journey, wherever it takes us.”
The swordsman, slightly surprised by the cat’s insight, nodded his thanks. And with no need for more conversation, they set about preparing for the journey.
An Encounter on the Road
You will recall that the village where the Marvellous Old Cat lived was around a week away, through the humid bamboo forests of Southern China. Much of the track that they followed ran alongside a wide river, which wound its way down from the mountains towards the sea.
A few uneventful days into their journey, as the day was nearing its end, the swordsman and his cat were approached by a large group of rough-looking characters who emerged from the forest onto the road. They had heard stories of bandits attacking travellers on the road, so the swordsman placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, and they stood centrally on the road, the swordsman shifting gently on his stance and watching his surroundings to make sure that he couldn’t be taken by surprise from behind.
“Good evening, strangers.” The swordsman spoke politely, his voice strong and confident, despite his cat and him being significantly outnumbered. “Can I be of any assistance?”
“Ha ha!” laughed their rough-looking leader. “Assistance? Why, I just think you might,” he replied. “Or maybe we can assist you? Perhaps you have something heavy and valuable that we might be able to relieve you of?”
As he spoke another group of bandits appeared from the forest and stood behind the swordsman and his cat, cutting off their escape route.
“I’m afraid not, friend,” answered the swordsman. “We have nothing of value on us. I’m afraid we’re travelling light.”
“What about that fine-looking sword?” asked another of the bandits. “That must be worth something. We’ll relieve you, of that, then,” he sneered.
The swordsman sighed quietly. He had hoped to live long enough to speak to the Marvellous Old Cat and find his peace, but it seemed that this was not to be. He had fought in several battles as a member of the Imperial Army, and these bandits would pay dearly for his only treasure. Unsheathing his sword, he let his travelling pack drop to the floor, the bright blade darting out to rest in front of him, pointing at the nearest bandit, his feet assuming (of course) a cat stance.
“You can take it from my dead body,” he said calmly, and his sword darted out faster than the eye could see, stabbing his first attacker straight through the heart.
The swordsman danced gracefully, his blade flashing out to stab, slice and cut at his opponents, who were somewhat hindered by their superior numbers, as only a few could get close to the swordsman with their weapons at once. The cat stood close by the swordsman and rushed out to claw at the hands and faces of any who attempted to surprise his companion from behind.
Their tactics worked well enough, and soon three of the bandits lay dead, and a couple more were clutching serious wounds, but the pair were becoming quickly tired, and there were just too many enemies. They slowly accumulated cuts and bruises as their enemies landed blows, and in a momentary lull, the swordsman shook his head gently to himself. This wasn’t the day or the manner in which he had thought he was going to die.
Glancing at the cat, he said, “Thank you for standing with me today. It means a lot.”
The cat looked up at him, his eyes showing that he had understood the swordsman’s meaning, but, “No need for goodbyes yet,” replied the cat. “Look!”
Suddenly the swordsman noticed that there was a commotion starting on the road behind them, as someone else had joined battle with the bandits from behind. Feeling renewed vigour and hoping that he would not also have to fight these newcomers, he rushed forwards to attack his nearest enemy.
As the seconds passed, they saw that the newcomers were, in fact, also cats. One was black, one tiger-striped, and one was old and grey. Suddenly the swordsman exclaimed with joy as he recognised the three Kung Fu Master Cats that had fought against the rat that had taken over his house. What a happy coincidence! Surely now the bandits wouldn’t stand a chance!
The black cat darted from opponent to opponent with incredible speed, power and athleticism, landing powerful blows which broke bones, and sent the attackers flying through the air. He easily blocked or leapt out of the way of every attack that came towards him.
The tiger-striped cat moved in a very different way, clearly timing his movements with his breath, his vital energy almost crackling around him as he landed attacks on his opponents which appeared soft, but had the effect of making them lose control of their arms and legs, careering into each other and landing in heaps on the floor.
The old, grey cat waited patiently for his opponents to attack him, making the smallest movements with his feet, causing surprised looks on his opponents’ faces as their blows unexpectedly missed him by the tiniest margin, and then suddenly they went flying through the air as he harmonised with their attack and then used their momentum against them.
In almost no time, the bandits were fleeing back into the forest, dragging their wounded with them. The swordsman sighed with relief. Now he would live to meet the Marvellous Old Cat again after all.
Leaving the site of the battle, the reunited friends found a place to camp further along the road, preparing food for the evening, and treating the wounds of the old swordsman and his cat.
Delighted that fate had brought them together again, conversation quickly moved to why they all happened to be travelling on the road together at the same time, and quickly it became clear that they shared the same destination.
“We three have all practised Kung Fu for most of our lives, and have studied many ancient texts of wisdom, but despite our practice and meditation, our attempts to penetrate the highest levels of our art have remained beyond our grasp.”
“It is clear to me,” said the old, grey cat, “that it is very rare to meet someone who has achieved such great heights of martial ability. We are very lucky to have come across him, and we have decided to go to him to ask him to take us on as students, so that we can learn how to achieve his level.”
So the little group made the rest of the journey together with no further mishap, the bandits clearly not stupid enough to challenge them a second time.
Asking the Right Question
And so a few days later they arrived at the Marvellous Old Cat’s house.
As previously, there he sat, looking quite nondescript, and appearing completely at peace. The old cat barely acknowledged their arrival, just gesturing for them to sit with him, and as previously, they began to explain why they had come to visit him a second time.
“Nonsense!” exclaimed the unremarkable-appearing old cat. “Why would you want me to take you on as students?”
With disappointment written across their faces, the group sat there, stunned. The swordsman sighed and went to pick up his pack to begin the journey home again.
The swordsman’s cat spoke one last time. “Master, is there nothing that you can do to help us? We only wish to understand the path to wisdom and peace, how you arrived at your level of ability, and why these lie beyond our grasp.”
“Now those are entirely different questions,” said the old cat, gesturing for the old swordsman to sit again. He sat silently for a while.
“You three are already Kung Fu Masters – what you really need to understand is how to approach taking yourselves beyond that level, and for you and your companion,” he turned to the swordsman, “you seek peace from your torment. The answer to both is actually the same.”
“You must understand from the outset, that you taking me on as your master at this point would actually work against you finding the truth that you are seeking. The only place that you can find this is within yourselves, and relying on the words and instructions of another would only serve to immediately ruin your efforts.”
Again, he paused for thought, as if considering how to best put something that was second nature to him into words. As if echoing this process, he said, “Do any of you recall the first words of the Tao Te Ching?”
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” replied the black cat.
“Exactly, yes. And herein lies our problem. I have already told you that my technique is emptiness, that I have no thought, no self, and hence no opponent, but these are just words, concepts, ideas, and by their very nature will again only serve to work against your truth.
“It is very difficult to explain without inadvertently messing the whole thing up for you, so you must be aware of this peril, and capture the essence of my words, rather than their content.
“It is very apt,” he said, looking at the old swordsman, “that you have come to ask for help in ending your suffering, because the root of suffering lies within the interplay of Yin and Yang, within opposition and duality. Because you look to be happy, consequently sadness must exist, because you wish for pleasure, you must also dwell in pain. So we must learn how to dwell in a state in which duality ceases to exist.“ Again, the cat paused, considering his words before he continued.
“You are all martial artists, in one way or another, and so will understand that abstract philosophical concepts are worthless. Martial artists must put their learning into practice, otherwise they will never achieve any proficiency. You have also spent years learning to discern between finer and finer physical details, making your movements more and more efficient and accurate, and this is exactly what we must continue to do here, but now within ourselves.
“I will teach you the essence of my method, and then it is up to you to find your own truth. You must understand that there is no path to truth, and I cannot set this out for you. It is not about theoretical understanding, but doing, which I hope will become clear to you. But first of all, let’s eat.”
The swordsman and the Kung Fu Master Cats, immediately began to prepare a generous meal, full of relief and excitement, because they all felt that they were about to have a veil lifted from a great mystery, and they were also delighted to hear that their many years of martial training had in some way prepared them for what they were about to hear.
While they ate, the Marvellous Old Cat asked the swordsman and his cat about their injuries, which of course led on to their adventure on the road, and the old master listened with great delight to the story of the battle, but also showing genuine sorrow when he heard about the injuries they had sustained, as well as the deaths of the bandits. “Such a terrible waste,” he said, shaking his head.
They then cleared the meal away, showing patience that they weren’t necessarily feeling as they finished the job and made sure that everything had been put away correctly (because they were martial artists and so had very good manners, and always finished things properly). Afterwards they prepared tea, and sat down quietly, waiting for the old master to begin.
The Wisdom of the Marvellous Old Cat
“Now, first of all, there are two points that you must understand, and these are as follows.” The cat looked each of his listeners in the eyes to make sure he had their full attention.
“The first is that you are all ready to begin this now. There is no mythical start point somewhere down the road, no level that you must have achieved. Despite the trepidation that you no doubt are feeling at these words, there need be no delay. Putting it off to ‘one of these days’ introduces time, and time will certainly prevent success!
“The second is that your conditioning, your expectations of yourself, the way that you should behave, the way that you ought to feel, your comparisons with others, are all sources of internal conflict, and will prevent you from finding your truth. So, as you begin this journey it must be without any form of judgement, any expectation, any sense of good or bad, right or wrong, what should or could be. There is only what is and your acceptance of it, your understanding of it, and your full attention given to it.
“Is this clear? Because if you can understand this, then it is the difference between starting your journey and making it impossible from the outset.” Eager to hear what the old master would say next, the martial artists sat and nodded thoughtfully. After a short pause he spoke again.
“Then what you must do is very simple, and it must be done with your complete attention. As you go about your daily lives and as you continue with your Kung Fu training, you will observe your own thoughts, feelings and actions, with full acceptance and no judgement, opinion or conclusion. You will observe yourself with the intention of achieving complete self-knowledge. You will cast off your conditioning, and any labels by which you identify yourself, and live each moment in observation as if there is no future and no past, not allowing memory or thought to come into play. Forget everything you think you know about living or yourself and start afresh.
“You must live with what you might think of right now as negative emotions, such as anger and despair, and accept them merely as what is. Accept them and study them and understand and come to love them, feel joy when you observe them, and then the next moment forget them. You are going to learn who and what you actually are, not what you wish you were!
“Your memories of what has happened bear absolutely no resemblance to this moment now, and only serve to prevent you from seeing it as it actually is, so cast them gently aside, and live each moment as if you are a newly born mind, with no past at all, except the simple knowledge of how to carry out your daily tasks, how to ride a horse and hold a sword, as we must continue to live in this world, and this is essential.
“You will see a problem, and you will act immediately, without thought or problem-solving in between the two. Because there is no thought, there is no thinker, no self, only a mind free of all restriction.
“This is the method to find your own truth. I can’t tell you how to look, because you must just look. There is no technique. Nobody can tell you what it will be, because it is yours alone.
“As martial artists of differing backgrounds I am sure that you are familiar with the concept that the entire essence of your training is within the journey. We will not discuss any expectations of what you might achieve through this method, because as soon as it has been put into words, it is in the past, and cannot possibly be your truth, which lies only in the present. As soon as you say, ‘I know’, you do not.”
They sat together in the old master’s garden, the martial artists waiting for more instruction, or further clarification, but the Marvellous Old Cat just sat there in enigmatic silence.
“Well? What are you waiting for? I’ve said everything I have to say. Wisdom is relatively easy to obtain, but living it is quite something else,” exclaimed the old cat, prompting the others to rise and begin preparations for their journey home.
As they walked away from the Marvellous Old Cat’s house, they looked back and waved, and he called out, wishing them “Good luck!” before he went on sitting in peaceful silence.
What happened next, and were the masters successful in the next stage of their Kung Fu journey?
If you have grasped the Marvellous Old Cat’s wisdom, then you will already know that these words can’t be written, and if you have already begun your journey towards your own truth, then you will know that it is only your own story that matters, and that no ending is needed.
Now it’s all up to you.