In spite of all his prowess as a master of the martial arts, a certain samurai found himself incapable of getting rid of a large rat that had set up housekeeping in his home and was making a continual nuisance of itself. The rodent was very alert and extremely cunning. It could dodge any sword blow and was too smart for any trap. So the master of the house was finally driven to his last resort. He went to the marketplace to buy a cat. He found a merchant who seemed to have what he was looking for and returned home with a young and vigorous male cat. After a week of meowing, pouncing, and frantic chases around the house, the spirited young tom remained without a catch.
So the disappointed samurai went back to the market to return the cat to the merchant. The latter at once began touting the merits of his latest acquisition, a striped male cat in the prime of his life. If you went by what the merchant said, a better rat hunter would never be found.
And in truth, the new arrival quickly showed itself to be both more experienced and more subtle than his predecessor. It waited in ambush behind pieces of furniture for hours at a time. It stole furtively about close to the walls, creeping slowly so as not to arouse attention. But after a week, the rat was still running free. Furious, the sword-bearing householder returned the cat to the merchant and demanded his money back.
The samurai was in the habit of paying regular visits to a Zen monk from a nearby temple. He found himself telling the monk about his problem.
“Well,” the monk responded, “you should borrow our old cat for a while. Thanks to him, we have no rodents here.” And he took the samurai into the dojo, where asleep on a zafu, a meditation cushion, lay a somewhat decrepit, plump old tomcat, with a half-bald head that looked as though it had been tonsured. The warrior brought the old puss back home and deposited it, still asleep, on a tatami mat, where it continued snoozing away, giving not the slightest sign of knowing it had changed residences.
The attitude of the monastic feline was extremely irritating. It spent its time sleeping on the tatami, always in the same place near the fire, without getting up except to eat it’s food or see to its basic needs. You could believe that it had taken on the worst habits of certain monks, who after filling their bellies, sit zazen for hours while picking their noses!
Not a week had passed before the samurai carried this useless creature with a mouth not worth feeding back to the temple.
“Don’t be so impatient,” the monk exclaimed. “Keep him a little while longer. Trust me. I’m positive that in the end he will provide you with complete satisfaction.”
Skeptical, the gentleman took the old tom back home. One day followed another without any change in the cat’s attitude. And as the proverb says “When the cat sleeps, the mice dance.” In this case, the rat made itself more and more comfortable. It even became so bold as to sample the food waiting to be stewed over the fire, frightening the daylights out of the maid. Since the old tomcat still showed no sign of moving, the rodent now paid it no more heed than it would to a stuffed animal. And one day. as the rat was trotting by in paw range, with a sudden move, the Zen cat seized it. In a flash, it was a dead rat.
The samurai, who had witnessed the scene from a distance, could hardly believe his eyes. He at once recalled one of the principles of Chinese strategy: numb the vigilance of the enemy. He returned the old tom and made a gift to the temple. Then he meditated on the lesson he had just learned and, it is said, made considerable progress in his practice of swordsmanship.
- There are various versions of this tale. This is from Samurai Wisdom Stories, by Pascal Fauliot.