Dharma Rain - Stillpoint
Thor and the Cat
Or – Stepping up and Making a Difference
This article is based on a Dharma Talk given earlier this year. It has been
rewritten by Kyogen.
The gist of this talk can be summed up with one phrase: “practice
can change a life and changing a life can change the world.” I’d
like to start with a story I’ve used before, and that comes up in sanzen
from time to time. It’s the story I call “Thor and the Cat.” In
Norse mythology the gods are often in conflict with the “jotun,” giants,
or “titans,” who were earlier deities displaced by the gods and
who came to represent nature as chaos. I heard this particular tale at the
monastery many years ago, and I will recall it as best I can, but I have
few references for it other than my memory. (See Note at
the end of this article.)
As this version of the story goes, the titans invited the gods to a feast
at a time of truce between them. The gods accepted and went to an enormous
hall, where everything was huge. When they were seated, the king of the titans
invited the gods to a contest of skill, the first of which was to be a test
Just then a cat walked into the hall, and being a titan cat, it was very
big. The king of the titans said, “OK, the first test will be to see
who, if any, can lift my cat. So the strongest among you, oh ye gods, come
forward and be tested.” Well, Thor thought to himself, “Now what
could be so hard about that?” and stepped forward. The cat was large
enough that he had to crouch underneath it, but with his great strength he
still expected to throw it all the way to the rafters with ease. So he gave
it a big heave and it didn’t budge. Thor was quite surprised by this,
but he gathered himself together, braced himself, and gave it a truly mighty
heave and – nothing. Absolutely zilch.
Finally he called on every ounce of strength he had. He could not allow
himself to be embarrassed by a cat. He shoved and heaved and shoved and heaved
finally, one paw came off the ground. That was all he could manage. He felt
utterly defeated and went back to his seat. The evening proceeded, and he
was left feeling completely dejected.
At the end of the feast, the king of the titans said “I have to congratulate
you, gods of Valhalla, because of how you defeated us in the contest of skill.
By far the most impressive feat was that performed by Thor, for the cat he
moved is no ordinary cat. It is actually the serpent that entwines the globe.
That it could be moved at all tips the world on its axis.”
The serpent, Jörmungandr, lies under the sea with its tail in its mouth,
a symbol also known as the uroboros, which can represent the unconscious.
Seen this way, the story is about the early, fragile, human psyche struggling
to overcome the pull of gravity back into infantile, or animal, unconsciousness.
But we can reframe it so that the serpent is the binding of karma and habit
energy that keeps us, and the whole world, trapped in unconscious patterns.
Gravity is the pull of these old habits, and Thor’s effort is the power
of one person to change it. If, through practice, you change your own karma
and habit energy, the whole world is tipped on its axis. That is a profound
So, when people are dejected and can’t see much progress in their practice,
I recount this story. We can often feel like Thor, pushing and pushing on
this thing that won’t budge, while the world keeps pushing us back
into our patterns. Other people do, unconsciously, conspire with our karma
and habit energy to keep us bound in old patterns. Shifting it all can seem
overwhelming, but when we do, the world is affected.
So this brings me to another story, again, one I’ve told before. It’s
about a member of Dharma Rain, a former resident. She was just getting well
established in her practice when she went back to her hometown and spent
time in the house where she grew up.
When she returned, she was fairly distraught. She told us that during her
stay she became painfully aware of the dynamics in that house. She could
see the patterns clearly, but was unable to do anything about them. She felt
utterly helpless, a powerless observer. She had been somewhat aware of all
this before, but had not seen it with the clarity she had during this visit.
She came away feeling that the situation was pretty hopeless, and that nothing
much would ever change.
Within just a few days or weeks she received a phone call, and her mother
announced that she had moved out of the house. The deciding factor, it turns
out, was the young student being present, but not playing her old role. Simply
observing, but not engaging and supporting the old dynamic, the student’s
presence changed the pattern enough that it became clear to her mother just
what was going on.
When I heard this, I was struck by how profound this is. An action not
taken can change everything. Just being present, being still, and not falling
the old pattern had a ripple effect that changed the dynamic in the house.
Because of that her mother took action that had an even larger effect,
extending the ripples further still. The serpent-cat’s paw was lifted
a little bit and the earth tipped on its axis.
I’d always viewed this story, and the story of Thor and the Cat, as
being about our individual efforts and the effects they can have. But I’m
starting to see that there’s more to it. The effect of our collective
efforts as a community magnifies this significantly, and we can chose to
work with it in a conscious way.
Two examples are our children’s programs and our prison work. Members
involved in this work are people who have made a shift in their own lives
through practice, then engage in these programs with people who are not members
here. We have a policy to make it clear that practice does not require belief
in a dogma or “signing up” with the group in any way beyond the
program itself. It is inherent in Buddhism, but more clearly developed in
the Zen tradition, that progress in practice depends on a way-seeking mind
and the willingness to investigate the truth wholeheartedly. In this path,
honest doubt is a part of faith, not an obstacle. In fact, we say “Great
doubt, great understanding; small doubt, small understanding.” This
view is, as far as I know, unique to Zen in the Buddhist world.
We do not ask the children to believe a dogma or sign on to anything. We
ask them to investigate their lives, to look at themselves and the kids around
them, to notice what causes comfort and discomfort, and from that, to find
a way to take their place with each other with kindness and authenticity.
With the prisoners, much of the work is about looking back at their lives,
gaining some understanding about how they repeat their patterns, and about
finding a place in themselves that is open and kind. From this they begin
to see how they can come back into the world in a new way – with kindness,
clarity, and authenticity, but without having to buy into a dogma.
With our adult sangha we’re working with how we function in the present.
This is really the very same work, but focusing on the application of the
dharma in daily life. One way to look at it is that with the prisoners we’re
working with past karma, getting clearer about it so they can drop it and
move forward with clarity. With adults we’re working with present karma,
and with the children’s program we’re working with future karma,
planting seeds that can bear fruit in the future as the kids take their place
in the world in the way that’s right for them. We hope to help people
establish paths of practice in life that emphasize open-handedness, a deep “not
knowing” with a warm heart and clarity of mind.
While there is a moral center to this, it does not have absolutes of good
and bad. This view is really different, even from other schools of Buddhism.
Although Buddhism is non-theistic and doesn’t view things as existing
in a concrete way, in most other schools there is more emphasis on a belief
system than you find in Zen. So why is this approach so important? Why
do I think it can make a big difference?
Prisoners face some tough questions. They are often asking themselves whether
they are “good” or “bad” in some fundamental way.
They question whether their situation is fair or not. Children face tough
questions too, like, “Am I cool, or a loser?” These are of course
familiar, essentially the same questions we all ask ourselves. The problem,
however, is that there’s a trap in each of these questions. In a fundamental
way, they are based on what Buddhism calls “wrong view.” This
type of wrong view is deeply embedded in our culture.
That brings me to my last story today, and again, some of you will have
heard this before. A number of years ago I received a call from a producer
Town Hall TV show, which is a community issues program on Channel 12. They
were going to tackle the question “Does God exist?”
I told the producer, “You know, that question is really not relevant
to me.” She asked what I meant, and I explained that I could honestly
answer “yes” or “no,” depending, but that the question
was not terribly relevant to a Buddhist. She said, “Wow, what an interesting
perspective! We’d really love to have you on the show.”
So, I thought well, maybe. It was a disaster. They put the theists on one
side, facing off against the atheists on the other. I was seated with a group
along the back of the stage, the “non-aligned” I suppose, so
that we formed a squared-off U shape with the moderator standing near the
center. It was like watching a tennis match, with bombs and bromides lobbed
back and forth. I realized it was a staged dogfight, one in which I had no
stake at all, with no opportunity to say a word.
In retrospect, I realized there is practically no space in society for
our view. The western cultural view comes out of the Aristotelian / Judeo-Christian
perspective, which has solidified like concrete. That view has it that the
answer to a question like the one we were considering has to be either “yes” or “no,” and
that an action must be either right or wrong. The hotter the issue, the stronger
this assumption becomes. On the TV set that day, you could not slip a piece
of paper between the polar opposites of “yes” and “no,” “exists” or “does
not exist,” and more importantly, which view was “right,” and
While Buddhism and the Zen tradition are better understood these days,
when it comes to a major question like this, our perspective is an afterthought
at best, one from outside the cultural mainstream. There are advantages to
this position, but in the long run we can affect the cultural system by being
engaged in it, the way the student changed the dynamic in her parents’ house.
Engaged this way, moving the cat’s paw, cultural continents can shift.
I think of practice as a catalyst dropped into a solution, held in a container.
For an individual, the “container” is the vow and intention to
hold a form with some regularity over a period of time. The “solution” is
the way-seeking mind, the desire to move forward in mindful investigation.
The “catalyst” is practice itself, the effort we make moment
by moment, in zazen, mindfulness, and precept study. It takes all three to
For a sangha, the “container” is the community itself: familiarity,
time, proximity, and the investment we make in each other. The “solution” is
our collective way-seeking mind and the way our shared intention supports
us. The “catalyst” is the effort made and the effects achieved
by each person in the community. When you see someone change dramatically,
it affects you. Each person maturing and awakening to the dharma is the catalytic
effect within the solution.
In the larger community, the “container” is our civic bonds,
created by the simple fact of shared space and resources. I now see my relationship
to the larger community as an essential aspect of sangha. It has drawn me
into dialog with fascinating people who care about this as deeply as I do.
In the larger community the “solution” is the good intentions
of many individuals and organizations, a version of way-seeking mind. The “catalyst” is
the effort all these people and groups are making to improve matters. Our
children’s program and prison work can be part of this. Saying “yes” to
being in the solution, part of the civic soup, makes a big difference. We
can choose to step up and make the effect we have on our community real,
visible and understood. The young woman in her parents’ house had an
effect by simply observing. What effect can we, as Zen Buddhists, have in
our community by being engaged?
My hope is that in time we can slip a piece of paper between the two views
of “yes” and “no,” “good” and “evil,” and
that our way of looking at important questions will be better understood.
Many people get lost between those two poles. Establishing some space in
our culture for a different way of seeing things could have a very powerful
effect. If people were aware that there is a spiritual and moral view not
based on a dogmatic belief system, and that there is a place for honest doubt,
that alone would be a mighty heave on the cat’s foot.
The community dialog I’ve been involved in has led to conversations
with civic leaders and the heads of some funding agencies, and they’ve
looked at our programs and said “you know, you’ve got something
here.” But they want to see us functioning at a more professional level.
So, we need to pull up our bootstraps and get busy. Our reorganization and
fundraising efforts are part of this. For me this is all about stepping up
and taking our place in the civic landscape. If we do, there are people who
will partner with us in interesting ways, some with financial help, and others
with program assistance. We are joining the “Home for Good in Oregon” program,
for example, which is a network of churches and service agencies helping
parolees successfully reintegrate into society.
These developments represent some fairly big changes in the way our sangha
has operated. I hope we can support this, say “yes” to this,
because I think we can have a positive effect in our community simply because
we approach issues in such a different way. I would like this approach to
be more visible and understood.
At the start I said that practice can change a life and that changing a
life can change the world. That happens on an individual level in small ways,
and it can happen collectively in a profound way. Our presence in the community
can be a catalyst in the solution of our civic life.
Note: Member Kat Streiby offers details from another version of the
story in which Thor, Loki, and a servant went to see Utgardsloki, the jotun
question. They all had tasks, and they all failed: Thjalfi ran a race against
Thought, for instance, and Loki had an eating contest with Wildfire. Only
Thor’s efforts, however, changed the world — not only did his
lifting the Mitgard Serpent move the world on its axis, but also in trying
to empty Utgardsloki’s drinking horn, which was actually connected
to the ocean, he changed the tides.