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The Wild Fox


Whenever Zen master Dai Chi Ekai of Mt. Sakujo gave a discourse of the Dharma to an assembly of monks, there was always an old man in attendance.  When the monks left, at the end, the old man also left. On one occasion however the old man remained, and Hyakujo asked him who he was.  The man replied, “In reality I am not a human being.  At the time of Cassiopa Buddha, I was head priest of this temple and in that capacity was once asked by a trainee, ‘Does an enlightened person remain subject to causality?’  I replied, ‘No.’ And as a result of this mistaken answer, I have continued to be reborn as a wild fox with 500 lives. Oh honorable priest I entreat you, please teach me the meaning of causality, so that I may be released from this suffering.”

The old man questioned, “Is an enlightened man subject to causality?”  Hyakujo replied, “Yes. No one is beyond the effect of causality.” At these words the old man awoke to great enlightenment, and prostrating before Hyakujo, said, “I am now released from the life of a fox, the corpse of which lies at the foot of the far side of this mountain. Please take this corpse and cremate it with the rights for a head priest.” Hyakujo agreed and the head monk was instructed to inform the monks that a service for the head priest would be held following the next meal. The monks were surprised by this announcement, for all were healthy and the sick room had been unoccupied.  After they had eaten Hyakujo led the monks to the far side of the mountain, and there, using his staff, he uncovered the corpse of the fox.  The cremation ceremony began accordingly.  That evening in the Dharma Hall, Hyakujo explained the day’s unusual events.  When he had finished, the monk Obaku questioned, “Had the old man’s reply been correct, what would have been the result?” Hyakujo answered, “Come closer and I’ll explain.” Obaku went forward, approached his master, and slapped Hyakujo across the face.  Hyakujo, clapping his hands and laughing heartily, exclaimed, “I thought foreigners had red beards, but now I know men who have red beards are foreigners.”

This version of the story of Hyakujo and the fox, which is also recounted in the in the second case of the mummonkon is here reading the version in Zinchin Inga which is Dogen’s chapter on beliefs and causality in the Shobogenzo.  And we might say that this old ghost story is a fitting koan for Halloween, but I think what makes it really relevant to our practice is the old priest who has been born as a fox is asking a question that in a way we all ask. And in a sense his question is a prototype of all of our curative fantasies. “Is the enlightened man free from causality?” is a very abstract question in a sense, but really it’s asking what is the result of our practice?  What will it change?  What kind of freedom will practice bring us?

And I think we have to allow ourselves to deeply identify with that question and see how it permeates our own practice. In what ways are we looking to be freed from our karma? How are we hoping to be freed from cause and effect?  Just what kind of cosmic get out of jail free card do we expect enlightenment to bring us? The curative fantasy is a kind of magical thinking in which we picture that the results of practice will once and for all extirpate some part of our life, or some part of our mind, or some aspect of our emotional reality that we think is the cause of our suffering. Here he says I was free from causality but do you think you’ll be free from anger, do you think you’ll be free from desire, do you think you’ll be free from depending on other people, be autonomous and self-reliant?

I think we all have versions of this curative fantasy buried deep within our practice.  And indeed, we could say our practice is all about bringing to life or making explicit and working through all those fantasies. In a way we wouldn’t practice if we weren’t in the grip of one of them. They are inevitably part of our motivation and part of what we have to work through by being here.

It says in this story that the old priest because he denied belief in causality was reborn for 500 lives as a fox. When he’s released he asks Hyakujo to perform a funeral service for a monk in the body of a fox. And that’s the part of the story that we shouldn’t rush past.  Reading it through this time myself I had a special feeling for it, I think, because what does it mean to perform the ceremony for the fox that we would perform for the monk?

To me it felt like we were venerating that aspect of ourselves, the wild fox aspect of ourselves that we have regretted and tried to split off, maybe even tried to kill, that by treating the fox as a monk we are honoring it as an inescapable aspect of ourselves, a self for too long trapped by it.  It’s a too-long self that it was a punishment we felt for too long that we suffered those all those things because we did something wrong. ? One stupid answer and you’re reborn 500 times as a fox.  Not much slack there.

This in a way how we treat ourselves, how we judge ourselves, how we condemn ourselves for what we feel are our fatal flaws, how we condemn ourselves, in a way life after life after life, for having something that we think is wrong.

So I think of the funeral ceremony as a ceremony of acknowledgment and re-owning.

Of seeing that there is no separation between the fox and the monk.  At the end of this story, Obaku comes up to Hyakujo and asks, “What would have happened if the old man had answered correctly?” This is a very good question.  And Hyakujo says come closer I’ll tell you. And together they enact this ending, where before Hyakujo can tell Obaku, Obaku gives the old teacher a slap.

See what they’re illustrating is that it’s not a matter of a right or a wrong answer to this question. If the old man gives a right answer and is still subject to causality, is being right going to free him from something? Is being wrong condemning him? 

Dogen in this chapter calls this deep belief in causality. What does it mean to have deep belief? I think what we’re meant to understand is that causality is not something extrinsic to who we are, that we could have or not have, not something that we could be free of or not. It is totally tied up in what it means to be human--to be caught up in birth and death and old age and desire and delusion. Are we ever going to be free of those things? Are we ever going to be free of being human? To have a deep belief in causality is to have a deep belief in what it is to be human.

It’s curious that as Dogen goes on in this chapter he very specifically attacks different kinds of views about past lives and causalities of different teachers and different sects. He says all this talk about past lives, don’t think it’s a sign of enlightenment to be able to remember your past lives. It’s just the opposite.  It’s only because you’ve got bad karma that you can remember your past lives. Enlightenment has nothing to do with it. If people claim to remember their past lives, that’s a problem. It’s not a sign that they’re Buddhists. Then he says don’t believe that upon death all our souls simply merge with (what is his language—let me see if I can find it)… he says that there are other non-believers who believe on death we simply merge with the great nirvana or great emptiness, regardless the conduct of our lives. But he says that too is a denial of true causality. 

But remember Dogen says that zazen is not a means to an end. It’s not a technique. So causality is not reduceable to “behave well and you’ll get a good outcome in the next life, behave badly and you’re going to be reborn as an animal.” A deep belief in causality is not that kind of Buddhist version of judgment day. He really wants to give you a deep sense of the inescapability of cause and effect, as intrinsic to what it is to be human.

There are many koans that basically try to illustrate how we incorrectly frame the problem of our life. The old man tries to frame the question, “Will enlightenment free me from causality?” Obaku as a joke asks Hyakujo, “What would have happened if he had answered correctly?” The dilemma is the split of imagining there’s a right or wrong answer, or that it’s going to make a difference.

There’s all sorts of ways that we can create false dichotomies in our lives and in our practice. We can get caught up in the kind of question “is the real essence of being human being rational? Or is it our desire--our animal nature?” And you can get into a great philosophical argument about asking is the essence of a person their desires?  Or their reason?  It’s not much different from asking “does a dog have Buddha nature?” Split something that’s indivisible into polar opposites and then ask which is the real one.

Who we are from one perspective is rational, and from one perspective is animal, from one perspective is free, from another perspective is determined.  But as soon as we ask either/or, we’re making a false split that we then end up trying to heal. Deep belief in causality is simply a reminder that our life is indivisible, and is always subject to what it means to be human, to be embodied, to be mortal, to be part of the world. We’re not going to, by some technique or another, free ourselves from any part of what it means to be human.  Perhaps the only thing we can ever free ourselves from is the fantasy that someday we can be free of those things.