healing the howling of the monastery cat

When I think about our education system – actually when I think about the purpose of any organised system of human endeavour – I am reminded of the following Zen story:

Many years ago, the howling of a monastery cat disturbed the monks’ morning meditation session. The Abbot, a great spiritual teacher, ordered that the cat be tied up and muzzled during the morning meditation hour. 

Some years later the Abbot died, and the monks continued to tie and muzzle the cat. And when, in turn, the cat died the monks brought another to the monastery and performed the same morning rituals on it. Five hundred years later scholarly monks, in the lineage of the former Abbot, wrote learned tracts about the deep spiritual significance of tying and muzzling the cats during morning meditation hour. 1

We all know the value of ‘What if’ questions. They’re the kind of questions that prompt generative thought. They’re a kind of mindful seed. I’d be interested to know what kind of ‘What if’ questions emerge for you from this little story; especially in relation to what it tells us about our education system.

Here are some of mine:

What if the Abbot had investigated the cause of the cat’s howling? He most certainly would have found that the cat was suffering in some way. After all, why else would it be howling? Isn’t howling a disturbing and distressing sound? 

What if the Abbot had attended to the suffering of the cat rather than being preoccupied by his own sense of suffering which I’m assuming he thought would be assuaged by the luxury of silence.

What if he had been in the present moment of suffering with the cat? Perhaps then he might have sought the cause of the cat’s suffering, thus enabling him to heal the howling of the cat in some way. Perhaps such present moment awareness may have prevented hundreds of years of unnecessary and cruel muzzling that successive generations of cats were brutally subjected to thereafter for the sake of ritual.

Often, when I hear ‘learned’ people talking about education I feel as though I am listening to the ‘deep spiritual significance of the tying and muzzling of cats’. Education uses the muzzle of attainment to silence its primary purpose: the alleviation of suffering. After all, what other purpose can there be for an education? Of course, I hear you when you say that deliverance from ignorance is also the alleviation of suffering, and, theoretically at least, we know attainment can do that. But only partially. The belief that academic attainment alone will somehow equip young people for a life of fulfillment is a very particular form of ignorance, but one upon which many ‘learned tracts’ are written. 

In ‘Mindful Compassion: Using the Power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Transform Our Lives‘, Paul Gilbert and Choden observe that ‘at no time are Western children taught that our minds can be very difficult and tricky to cope with – riddled with passions and feelings emanating from a brain that has been evolving over millions of years. Little or nothing is taught about becoming mindful and compassionate towards what’s going on in our minds, and how this can really help when struggling with anxiety, anger, depression and self-doubt. Given the huge advances psychology and our understanding about our minds, this is nothing short of a tragedy. However, it highlights just how much we orientate education towards becoming a productive unit.’2

Education needs to discover its primary purpose: that all intellectual, ethical and moral growth is rooted in compassionate awareness; that compassionate awareness is the seed of curiosity: a curiosity that may have guided the abbot toward seeking to heal the howling of the monastery cat. 

1 Taken from Three Zen Stories, Tying Up the Cat, The Salmon of Knowledge, Stories for Work, Life, the Dark Shadow, and Oneself, ed. Nick Owen, page 134-135


2 Mindful Compassion: Using the Power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Transform our Lives, Paul Gilbert & Choden. page xxxii


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