Stone Skin Press Preview: The Scientist and the Zen Master

In celebration of the Stone Skin Press Kickstarter, Benj Tentt, one of the contributors to the Stone Skin Press anthology, The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop’s Modern Fables, has kindly offered his story, ‘The Scientist and the Zen Master’ for your Page XX reading.


The Scientist and the Zen Master

Benj Tentt


Below a rocky promontory, beside a white-pebbled walkway, under the wafted scent of jasmine flowers, the ninth-century monk Nanquan Puyuan addressed the young men under his instruction. The novices had fallen into a dispute over possession of a tortoise-shell cat, which Nanquan now held in the crook of his arm. Tail twitching, the creature squirmed for its freedom, but the esteemed monk, without visible effort, kept it firmly in place. The young men laughed and jostled one another, eyes transfixed by the rhythmic movements of the animal’s tail.

“Your desire for this beast,” said Nanquan, “what does it represent?”

The boys shuffled their feet. They studied the ends of their toes. A few of them giggled.

A teacher of lesser poise would have allowed frustration to cloud his features. “Do you even want the cat, or do you want the others not to have it?” Nanquan asked them.

Again no one dared answer.

The monk breathed deep. “If any one of you can speak a word of Zen,” he said, letting the pause dry and lengthen in the air, “you may have the cat. If none of you can, I will kill it.”

At this moment the boys saw that a sword, sheathed in a rosewood scabbard, hung at Nanquan’s hip. It was not an ordinary part of his attire.

The boys stepped back in dismay. A few worked their mouths, but no sounds issued forth.

Furrows appeared on Nanquan’s brow. “All of your time here, and not one of you can answer this simplest of questions?”

The youngest of the boys screwed up his face, as if readying himself to speak.

Nanquan counted, in his mind, to seven, then lofted the cat, yowling, into the air. With swift grace he slid the sword from its scabbard. At the first moment of the cat’s descent, he struck it in two. Its forepart, including the front legs and its head, flew at the boys, thudding one of them in the chest, spattering all of them with pinpoints of blood. Its back half tumbled to a stop at the foot of a bench, where sat the twentieth-century theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger. He wore round glasses, a rumpled tweed suit, and a bow tie. Glancing at the tips of his worn leather shoes, he nodded, seeing that the cat’s blood hadn’t soiled them.

“I too have a parable about killing a cat,” he told the zen master.

“Mine isn’t over yet,” said Nanquan, over the horrified wails of the younger boys.

“While yours is intentionally obscure,” said the physicist, “mine is, more often than not, willfully misconstrued.”

The monk peered into the depths of a bamboo grove.

Schrödinger continued: “People take it for a metaphor for the ultimate subjectivity of consensus reality. Or worse, an indication that quantum physics—the field of which I am a pioneer—is merely a modern word for magic.”

The novices took the man’s monologue as an opportunity to slink away.

“Whereas in fact,” Schrödinger said, “it merely expresses the indisputable conceptual barrier between the state of being of classically understood macro-objects, and the fundamental indeterminacy of particles in a state of quantum entanglement.” He removed his glasses from his rectangular, Germanic face and huffed on them. “But I see I confuse you.”

“Not at all,” said Nanquan, still looking with expectation to the bamboo grove.

“I put the cart before the horse, the exegesis before the parable. The image is this: there is a cat in a steel box it cannot escape. Also in the box is a device, proofed of course against the cat’s interference. Its key components: a very small quantity of radioactive isotope, a Geiger counter, and a vial of poison. Should a single atom of the isotope decay, the counter triggers a mechanism which shatters the glass, releasing the toxin and killing the cat.” He could not help but steal a glance at the dead half-cat near his feet. “At the particle level, the atom which has or has not decayed has both decayed and not. Therefore one should expect, before opening the box to observe the cat’s condition, that it is both dead and alive. But, as need not be said, a cat cannot, unlike an atom, be simultaneously extant and not. Hence the intentional absurdity, which so many insist on not understanding, instead finding in the logical gap God or a universal spiritual consciousness or what-have-you.”

“It is you who does not understand,” said Nanquan.

“Here we go,” said Schrödinger.

“Everything both is and isn’t. Your story tells a truth greater than you intended. That is why people will not accept your interpretation: it is too small.”

Chuckling, the physicist leaned forward on the bench. “It is not my business to disprove mysticism. In fact, I derive great inspiration from it, in its various forms.”

Nanquan sniffed at this. “There is only one form.”

“My good fellow. I let your dead cat mean whatever you want it to. Can you not show the same courtesy for mine?” Schrödinger, uninterested in offending the monk, did not add, as he could have, that at least he never murdered real cats.

Like a curtain, the bamboo grove parted. From it slipped another young monk, who had earlier been absent. His regretful gaze at the slain pet provoked Nanquan to recount the events leading up to its demise.

The young man nodded, took off his sandal, and placed it atop his head.

“If you had only been here,” exclaimed Nanquan, “I could have saved the cat!” He turned to Schrödinger. “That is the rest of my parable.”

“Non-meaning is easy, though,” said the physicist. “Anything can mean nothing.”

“Everything does mean nothing,” said the younger monk.

“That’s not quite it,” said Nanquan.

Shrugging, the younger monk took the sandal off his head. “But it’s all an illusion, isn’t it?”

“An illusion of desire masking the truth,” said Nanquan.

“An illusion of order masking chaos,” said Schrödinger, simultaneously.

At that moment, atop the promontory, impersonal forces of erosion completed a process. This they did without volition, and certainly without regard to the attitudes, behavior, or  beliefs of the men below. A large chunk of rock fell away from the cliff-face and plummeted down onto them. It instantly crushed Nanquan, Schrödinger, and the younger monk, pulping muscle and pulverizing bone. The novice monks ran to the scene, choking in gravel-dust, but none of the three could be revived.

Moral: High-flown talk means nothing in the face of inevitable death.

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.