Five Hundred Lives as a Cat: A Zen Reflection on the Koan “Mehitabel’s Song”

Five Hundred Lives as a Cat: A Zen Reflection on the Koan “Mehitabel’s Song” July 10, 2023

Mummy of Cat
National Museum of Natural History, Object Number A381569


The Case

this is the song of mehitabel

of mehitabel the alley cat
as i wrote you before boss
mehitabel is a believer
in the pythagorean
theory of the transmigration
of the soul and she claims
that formerly her spirit
was incarnated in the body
of cleopatra
that was a long time ago
and one must not be
surprised if mehitabel
has forgotten some of her
more regal manners

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
wotthehell wotthehell
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic
and i m toujours gai toujours gai

i know that i am bound
for a journey down the sound
in the midst of a refuse mound
but wotthehell wotthehell
oh i should worry and fret
death and i will coquette
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came by
with a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
wotthehell wotthehell
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai

boss sometimes i think
that our friend mehitabel
is a trifle too gay

My editor at Shambhala Matt Zepelin is slowly grinding through the great pile of words I presented to him, trying to discern the book he believes is buried in there somewhere.

He recently came to one part and he advised me it needed an illustration, perhaps something like something he heard second hand attributed to Shunryu Suzuki.

“An enlightened person who loves alcohol, when they pass the liquor store, their head will still turn.”

I was much taken with it but was uncomfortable with the second hand nature of the citation. Also I had the impression Suzuki wasn’t much of a drinker and thought it an unlikely image for him. And so I began a bit of a journey.

I asked friends on social media, whom among the crackers wise and people who respond to a different question than the one asked, there are an unusually high number of folk who know something about Zen and the Zen scene.

One such friend in the later category, Doug Bates, who is also prominent on the Pyrrhonist scene, said he heard Daido Loori cite it as an observation from Daido’s teacher, Taizan Maezumi. As Maezumi was both a deeply wise person of the way, and an alcoholic, whose alcoholism actually killed him, it added a particularly poignant edge to the quote.

As to the Suzuki provenance another friend said, why don’t you ask David Chadwick. David is the author of the magisterial biography of Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber as well as perhaps the most delightful of the Zen memoirs I’ve ever read, Thank You, and Okay. David also manages a gigantic archive of all things Shunryu Suzuki. So, I did.

David, said the allusion is a commonplace in Chinese and Japanese Zen. Which, I want to assert, I know. At least in the sense of the deep teaching as presented as one of the important points in the famous Fox koan. He also said he was sure that he heard Suzuki say that, although probably with the word sake instead of alcohol. He didn’t have a direct citation in mind however.

So, I continued to dig a bit. And I found the transcript of a talk the roshi gave in 1971. He described the abbot of Eiheiji, one of the two major training temples in Japanese Soto Zen, Kitano Zenji. Zenji is a title, an honorific somewhat higher than Roshi. Never used in this country.

It appears the old abbot was a very serious smoker. At some point he quit. But he always wanted a smoke. And it seems every once in a while he would smoke a cigarette. And then in the talk Suzuki Roshi comes to the point. “But even though he gave up smoking, he has desire as long as he is alive, you know. But he knows how to treat his desire, that’s all.”

This all led me to reflect a bit on the matter of awakening.

If you’re not familiar with the Fox koan, it’s quite compelling. On the surface it seems to be a discussion of karma. Okay, it is. But it point out how we don’t usually get what karma might actually mean.

The koan is framed as a ghost story. In the first part it turns on a conversation between the current master of a Zen monastery and the ghost of a former master who when asked many ages before whether someone who is awakened is bound by cause and effect, you know, karma? His answer was no. And it led to all those ages reincarnating as a fox spirit, a particularly unsavory version of ghost in that time and place. The current master “corrected” the old master, saying something that actually seems a bit hard to translate, but is a bit different than a straightforward yes. More about not evading or being one with.

But the juicy part happens later in a second conversation when the new master tells the story to his community. One of his students asks, “Well, master. What if the old master gave the right answer?”

“An enlightened person who loves alcohol, when they pass the liquor store, their head will still turn.”

Many of us want our Zen teachers to be perfect. Enlightenment means not being tangled, not doing the wrong thing. And then they meet real Zen teachers. It can be very disappointing. Even in Suzuki Roshi’s smoking story, the renowned abbot, despite Suzuki’s line “He knows how to treat his desire” runs up against the fact the abbot continues to sneak a smoke. And, to make sure we don’t miss the point, there’s Maezumi’s fatal addiction.

And. And this is so important. This does not mean they did not penetrate to the heart of the matter.

There’s an old Zen line, even the Buddha is still training.

The classic formula for Zen as a living tradition has three aspects. One is the great achievement, that winning of the race, finding our true nature. It is summarized in the Zen way in the deep knowing that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Another are the constellation of practices. And the other is the ethical container.

And then what? If we speak and no matter the answer we get five hundred lives as a fox. We become a renowned Zen master and we sneak cigarettes. We found one of the most vibrant Zen lineages in the West and are killed by drink.

The light inside the dark. Which comes from an ancient Chinese poem the Cāntóngqì, more commonly known in English by its Japanese name Sandokai. It also says there’s dark inside the light. It can be hard to discern anyway to disentangle the parts.

In my old age I’ve come, slowly, slowly, to appreciate the foibles and outright flaws of my character, the bad choices mix up with the good choices and the better aspects of who I am. They are not extricable one from the other. They can be minded, there are good anti smoking workshops, and I’m a big fan of AA. Me, my abiding issues as they manifest these days lead me to be a paying member of weight watchers.

And there’s no letting ourselves off the hook, or the several hooks. There are always consequences. And they’re not ours alone. We’re all in this mess together.

Oh yes, and there’s that koan. Mehitabel’s koan. Mehitabel’s presentation and invitation.

After all that Zen stuff, after the great assertion, after throwing myself over and over again onto the pillow, after I bind myself to vows and fail and fail again, then what? What does it look like?

Archy had once been a free-verse poet. A consequence of this led him to reincarnate as a cockroach. Among his companions was Mehitabel. Mehitabel had once been Cleopatra, but was now an alley cat with a weakness for bad boys. Archy would communicate his adventures and those of his friends to a newspaperman named Don Marquis. He would do this by jumping from key to key on Marquis’ old stand up manual typewriter. Because of this there were no punctuation marks, and of necessity the notes were brief.

I count Archy and Mehitabel among my friends.

As to Mehitabel. I suspect for her sins it was five hundred lives as a cat.

I originally identified with Archy, the wry observer of life. But I realize my soul was Mehitabel’s. The grandeur of the awakened life is there, but often a dream of a past life. Today maybe its all more of a garbage scow and always mixed up with the come hither of that Maltese.

These are hard times. I suspect rather than riding a handcart on our way to perdition we’re more likely all on that garbage scow on that journey down the sound. I can smell it. But broken and failed and a faint version of a better self, you know, I find how beautiful it can be, how good it can be. Even the garbage scow. (There’s a koan pointer there, in case you didn’t pick it up.)


And, I return to the pillow. And I practice with friends and cherish companions. I lean up against old Shakyamuni and wink at his friend Jesus.

I find it hard to tell Archy and Mehitabel and Don apart, creator and created, the divine and the earth. And those five hundred lives as a cat.

And I find the way is feeling how the light and the dark weave together creating what we can be…

Toujours gai


toujours gai

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and Unitarian minister. His sixth book the "Intimate Way of Zen" is due from Shambhala Publications in the spring of 2024 You can read more about the author here.
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