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Pai-chang's Fox

In honor of Halloween, I will read you a Zen ghost story.

Once when Pai-chang gave a series of talks, a certain old man was always there listening togetherv with the monks. They left, he would leave too. One day, however, he remained behind. Pai-chang asked him, " who are you, standing here before me?"

The old man replied, " I am not a human being. In the far distant past, in the time of Kasyapa Buddha, I was the head priest at this mountain. One day a monk asked me, "Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?" I replied, "Such a person does not fall under the law of cause and effect." With this I was reborn five hundred times as a fox. Please say a turning word for me and release me from the body of a fox."

He then asked Pai-chang, " Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?"

Pai-chang said, "Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect."

Hearing this the old man immediately was enlightened. Making his bows he said, "I am released from the body of a fox. The body is on the other side of this mountain. I wish to make arequest of you. Please, Abbot, perform my funeral as for a priest." Pai-chang had a head monk stike a signal board and inform the assembly that after the noon meal there would be a funeral service for a priest. The monks talked about this in wonder. "All of us are well. there is no one in the morgue. What does the teacher mean?"

After the meal, Pai-chang led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain. And there, with his staff, he poked out the body of a dead fox. He then performed the ceremony of cremation. That evening he took the high seat before his assembly and told the monks the whole story.

Huang-po stepped forward and said, "As you say, the old man missed the turning word and was reborn as a fox five hundred times. What if he had said the right answer each time he was asked aquestion - what would have happened then?

Pai-chang said, " Just step up here closer and I'll tell you." Huang-po went up to Pai-chang and slapped him in the face.

Pai-chang clapped his hands and laughed, saying, "I thought the Barbarian had a red beard, but here is a red-bearded Barbarian."

Wu-men's Comment

"Not falling under the law of cause and effect." Why should this prompt five hundred lives as a fox? "Not evading the law of cause and effect." Why should this prompt a return to human life? If you ahve the single eye of realization, you will appreciate how old Pai-chang lived five hundred lives a fox as lives of grace.

Wu-men's Verse

  • Not falling, not evading -
    two faces of the same die.
    Not evading, not falling -
    a thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes.

I'm told that Halloween was originally a Celtic holiday, marking the harvest and the beginning of their new year, And it wa said to be the time when the worlds of the living and of the dead were at their closest, and that on that night the dead could cross over and walk among the living. So the ancient Celts lit bonfires and made offerings of food to placate the spirits of the dead. Robert Aitken in his commentary on this story says that in Japan the fox is regarded the way a black cat is in the West, as something sinister, the familiar of spirits and witches. The way Halloween is celebrated now, we take images of what we're most afraid of, images of death, and turn them around into life-affirming play. And it is especially fitting that Greenwich Village, with it's large gay population which has known so much death in recent years, has made Halloween a particular object of celebration.

This koan is about the old fantasy of somehow going beyond life and death, escaping as they say, from the wheel of cause and effect. In the folklore of India, where Buddhism first developed, a person's lifetime of karma caused them to be reborn, and enlightenment, whatever that was, somehow brought about nirvana, the cessation of endless death and rebirth. So the old man when he was the abbot and gave his answer he was merely saying what everyone believed, that enlightenment meant somehow escaping from this world of cause and effect. But there is no escape. This koan reminds us that even when we realize the oneness of all things, we mustn't lose sight of their impermanence. The spirit world, the world of enlightenment is none other than this world. Giving the body of the fox all the formal funeral rites of a dead monk is a symbolic way of enacting this identity.

True practice always brings us back to life as it is. And Halloween and the fox each serve to remind us of what we want to ignore, that we are bodies, bodies that suffer, live and die. When we truly accept this fact, Halloween becomes a chance to celebrate, and, as Mumon says in his poem, the old man truly enjoys his five hundred lives as a fox.