When I wrote Veronika Decides to Die, a book about madness, I was forced to ask myself how many of the things we do are really necessary, and how many are simply absurd. Why do we wear ties? Why do clocks move clockwise? If we live with a decimal system, why does the day have 24 hours of 60 minutes each?
The fact is that many of the rules we obey nowadays have no real foundation. Nevertheless, if we choose to behave differently, we are considered “mad” or “immature”.
As long as this goes on, society will continue to create systems that, with the passing of time, will cease to make any sense, but will continue imposing their rules on us. An interesting Japanese story illustrates my point.
A great Zen master, in charge of the monastery of Mayu Kagi, owned a cat, who was the real love of his life. During meditation classes, he always kept the cat by his side, in order to enjoy its company as much as possible.
One morning, the master, who was already quite old, was found dead. The oldest disciple took his place.
‘What shall we do with the cat?’ asked the other monks.
In homage to the memory of his former teacher, the new master decided to allow the cat to continue attending the classes on Zen Buddhism.
Some disciples from neighbouring monasteries, who travelled widely in the region, discovered that, in one of the most famous temples in the area, a cat took part in the meditations. The story began to spread.
Many years passed. The cat died, but the students at the monastery were so used to its presence that they acquired another cat. Meanwhile, other temples began introducing cats into their meditation classes; they believed that the cat was the one actually responsible for Mayu Kagi’s fame, and for the quality of its teaching, forgetting what an excellent teacher the former master had been.
A generation passed, and technical treatises on the importance of the cat in Zen meditation began to be published. A university professor developed a thesis, accepted by the academic community, that the cat had the ability to increase human concentration and to eliminate negative energy.
And thus, for a century, the cat was considered to be an essential part of the study of Zen Buddhism in that region.
Then a master arrived who was allergic to cat hair, and he decided to remove the cat from his daily practices with the students.
Everyone protested, but the master insisted. Since he was a gifted teacher, the students continued to make progress, despite the cat’s absence.
Gradually, monasteries – always in search of new ideas and weary of having to feed so many cats – began to remove cats from the classroom. Over the next twenty years, revolutionary new theses were written, bearing persuasive titles like ‘The Importance of Meditating Without a Cat’ or ‘Balancing the Zen Universe by the Power of One’s Mind Alone and Without the Aid of Animals’.
Another century passed, and the cat vanished completely from the Zen meditation ritual in that region. But it took two hundred years for everything to return to normal, and all because, during that time, no one thought to ask why the cat was there.
How many of us, in our own lives, ever dare to ask: why do I behave in such and such a way? In what we do, how far are we, too, using futile ‘cats’ that we do not have the courage to get rid of because we were told that the ‘cats’ were important in order to keep everything running smoothly?
Why do we not find a different way of behaving?
By Paulo Coelho