by Tom Vitron. 

Honshin’s Zen Cat & Sahali

“Zen Cat celebrates the oneness and compassion that is at the heart of Being.” Honshin
(from the June entry of the 2020 Zen Cat calendar)

Long before Zen Cats became a much-loved part of his creative output, artist Nicholas Kirsten-Honshin (known as “Honshin”) crossed paths with the non-feline form of zen cats. During the rise of the 1950s Beat movement, artists and intellectuals traveled the West Coast. Coffee shops were hubs for beatniks and musicians. Jazz artists were known as “cool cats.” When his father showed art at a coffee shop near the University of Washington, young Honshin received a close-up view of the counterculture.

Zen Buddhism arrived at West Coast coffee shops with Zen Master, D.T. Suzuki. “As transcendent thought came into fashion, it offered an alternative view to spirituality and reality,” explains Honshin. “And if you were studying Zen Buddhism and also playing your jazz, you were a Zen Cat!” The resonance of Zen Buddhism, helped to shape and guide him to this day.

A Zen Cat Story

In 1976, a feline Zen Cat entered Honshin’s life. While living in a studio house next to his art gallery and Zen garden in Seattle, a young person came to his door with a box of kittens. Honshin chose a black and white tuxedo cat, only to find it was named Mr. Crowley. “I had just finished reading the autobiography of famed occultist, artist, and writer Aleister Crowley,” recalls Honshin. Not unlike his namesake, Mr. Crowley would also take a physical-turned-metaphysical journey.

As the cat matured, it found its way into the Zen garden, sitting in the contemplative setting for hours. Inspiration and insight struck Honshin. “This is THE Zen Cat and I must paint it!”. Over a period of 24 years he produced 11 feline-centric works, and in 1996 painted Miss Kitty, his wife Krystal’s tuxedo cat, who jumped in his lap when he read Buddhist writings.

Honshin believes that because cats were in their natural state – lacking disconnection with nature as well as the physical and mental barriers of humans– they allowed him to understand the intelligence and the inter-connectedness of all living creatures. “I think animals are a lot more aware than us,” he explains. “I thought the cat was getting more of the sutras, and getting the sutras in their wholeness because the cat’s mind wasn’t wandering.” Krystal suggested turning the original 12 Zen Cat works into a calendar.

When Honshin moved to Santa Fe in 1995, Mr. Crowley came along. One night, a full moon beckoned the cat outside. Despite the danger, Honshin let him out, only to see him fall victim to equally excited coyotes.

Soon after Honshin adopted a Pyrenees dog. This ancient and venerable shepherd’s companion took no guff from local coyotes, seemingly embodying the spirit of the cat, as he lorded over the property. Though named Sahali, people often called the dog by the cat’s name, Mr. Crowley! A large and powerful animal of a different species had also auspiciously entered Honshin’s life, taking over more than just the passed animal’s place in the family by echoing his predecessor’s mellow Zen of Being.

“Sitting silently, looking deeply, the beauty of transformation is revealed,” Honshin
(April poem in the 2020 Zen Cat mini calendar.)