Fourteen hundred years ago, Seng-Ts’an, the third Chinese Zen patriarch, was approaching the age of ninety and had yet to find a suitable successor for the title. There were many students in his monastery but none of them were worthy of being entrusted with the Buddha’s original robe and bowl, which had been passed down by generations of Zen masters.
Seng-Ts’an decided to challenge all the Zen monks in China with a question, promising his title and the robe and bowl to the first to come up with the correct answer.
The following question was distributed in monasteries throughout China:
The mouse eats cat food. What is the next sentence?
The question was written on official scrolls and distributed throughout the land.
To answer one must understand who the mouse is, who the cat is, and why the mouse is eating the cat’s food. What does it all mean?
Many days passed by. One day an old monk climbed up the monastery path and asked to see Seng-Ts’an.
The two sat opposite each other and the visitor bowed and said, “I came to answer the question.”
“Well?” asked the patriarch, “A mouse eats cat food. What do you say to that?”
“The mouse eats cat food,” replied the visitor in a frail voice, “but the cat’s bowl is broken.”
Seng-Ts’an stood up and hugged the visitor with teary eyes.
“I have been waiting for you for many years,” he said and they were both as excited as brothers meeting for the first time. “But you are almost as old as I am,” said the patriarch, sadly, “and you look like you will die soon. What is the point of handing leadership over to you?”
“I am aware of that,” said the guest, presenting the patriarch with a sapling. “Plant this tree in the ground. When a boy the same height as the tree comes to see you, you will recognize him as me. Meanwhile I’ll see what I can do.”
They parted and Seng-Ts’an waved as the visitor walked down the mountain path. Not far away, the old monk saw a young woman washing clothes in the river.
“Is there a place where I can stay the night?” he asked her.
“Please wait. I’ll ask my father and come back with an answer,” she said.
The father invited the old monk to their home and served a large meal in his honor. The next morning, when the monk had still not risen, they went to wake him up and found that he was no longer among the living. They gave him a Buddhist funeral and had almost forgotten all about him, when, several months later, the girl’s belly began to swell and months later she gave birth to a baby boy who never cried.
The child grew up and when he was fourteen, he told his mother that he needed to go away.
“I always knew that day would come,” his mother said, trying to hide her tears. The boy did not go far, just up the mountain path, where the head of the monastery greeted him warmly and renamed him Tao-Xin (Through-Mind).
Tao-Xin became the fourth Zen Patriarch before he had turned twenty. But biology can be deceiving. It is possible that his true age was a hundred and twenty, or perhaps a thousand, one hundred and twenty.
Since then, many monks and nuns have puzzled over the cat and mouse question. Now they are asked to come up with a third sentence.
“A mouse eats cat food, but the cat’s bowl is broken. What comes next?”
The mouse is you, the student,
Students want to eat their teacher’s food,
Be nourished by his words,
Swallow what he has to give,
Maybe even become cats themselves.
But the teacher’s bowl is broken.
His mind is empty,
As empty as a large mirror.
The mouse eats cat food.
But the cat’s bowl is broken,
And whoever can tell me
What comes next…
Will inherit my robe.