Skip to main content

Baizhang’s Fox

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/10/2003
Location: Loon Lake
In Topics: Zen Koans

500 lives reborn as a fox for one misstep! Zoketsu speaks on karma and practice.The Case:

Once when Hyakujo (Baizhang) delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he.

But one day he remained after they had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?' The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and was abbot of this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened person is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: "The enlightened person is not subject to the law of causation." For this answer I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox.

Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox's body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened person subject to the law of causation?' Hyakujo said: `The enlightened person is not blind to the law of causation.' At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,' he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my fox body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform a monk's funeral for it.' Then he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare for the funeral of a monk. `No one is sick in the infirmary,' wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?' After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the cremation ceremony. That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku (Huangbo), upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I want to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?' Hyakujo said: `Come here near me and I will tell you.' Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher's face. Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed. `I thought the old barbarian had a red beard,' he said, `and now I know a barbarian right here who has a red beard.'

Mumon's comment:

`Not subject to causality.' How can this answer cause 500 rebirths as a fox? `Not blind to causality.' How can this emancipate a fox? To understand clearly you have to have just one eye. Then you will appreciate how Hyakujo lived 500 fox lives as 500 lives of grace.

Mumon's poem:

Not subject, not blind –
One die, two faces.
Not blind, not subject,
Error piled upon error

This is one of the most famous of all koans. It turns on the dialectic between the two aspects of our lives: the relative and the absolute. We are ordinary people with ordinary outlooks, with our quirks and foolishness, our brilliance and dullness, our loving and our hating, our likes and our dislikes, our hopes and our fears. We are all like this without exception, because all of us are karmic beings- limited particular created beings, so our perspective must always be a little off, our action a little skewed. But on the other hand we are all also Buddha, all also perfect, all also, because we are animated by consciousness, because we all breathe the breath of life, absolute beings. So you and I are Buddha and we are not Buddha. That's our human problem. How are we going to live out that problem in peace and harmony instead of suffering and confusion?

In ordinary life there is only the relative: who thinks about being Buddha? Hardly anyone except maybe a few people who are mentally imbalanced. Mostly we think about what kind of new car we want to buy and whether or not our boyfriend or girlfriend really loves us and if they do why don't they respect us the way we know they should. It is hard enough to get through the day. No one really has the time or psychic space to think about anything more than this. Even if we stop and think about our deepest wishes and desires it doesn't take us quite as far as Buddha. Heaven maybe but usually not Buddha. So that's ordinary life, a struggle to get what we want and to stay as far away as possible from what we don't want.

In religious practice it's the opposite. We are supposed to transcend our ordinariness and become good. Maybe imitate Jesus or love God perfectly. If we study Zen we are encouraged to do zazen with Buddha's mind, to throw away our life and just enter the absolute entirely. Actually the absolute is pretty sexy- how wonderful to somehow go beyond our human limitation and enter the ozone of nirvana, absolutely immune. Religious practice is very idealistic that way.

But it has to be. In spiritual practice the absolute has to be emphasized because there is no spiritual practice without it. Real spiritual practice can't be a self improvement course. Even though we might improve as a result of our practice, that can't be the point of it. The point has to be to touch the absolute, with our whole body. To confront the absolute bodily. So Zen is like any other religion in this way.

But also in Zen practice it is very clear that the absolute isn't enough. In the Zen tradition longing for the absolute and being attached to that longing is called hanging around in the cave of emptiness. It's considered a disease.

We do sitting meditation a lot in our practice- weeks at a time. But then we get up. Both sitting down and getting up is our practice. There is no absolute in the sky, floating pure above the world like a cloud. There isn't any heaven up in the sky, there's only actual existence: the absolute only appears in the form of the relative; it can't appear any other way. The limitless sky of nirvana only appears as you and I and what we are having for breakfast. That's real enlightenment, at least as we see it in Zen- relative and absolute together as one living experience.

So this is the trick of our practice- to be ourselves just as we are, just as our karma has shaped us, and at the same time to know that we are really Buddha and to actually allow ourselves to be Buddha, to manifest that side of our lives at the same time. Not Buddha superimposed over ourselves, but Buddha as ourselves. There isn't any other Buddha.

This case is about all that. The old Hyakujo was asked about karma, ordinariness, the relative. Is the enlightened person still in the relative world or not? Of course the classical answer is the answer he gives- no, the enlightened person is free of all that. A Buddha is beyond the relative world. This is the right answer-this is what it says in the sutras- Buddha is not subject to entangling karma- that is what makes him Buddha. But it looks like the text book answer isn't really right. The poor old guy missed something and is reborn five hundred lives as a fox. And now he comes to the present Hyakujo, the present monk who is abbot of Hyakujo mountain, to see if he can get a better answer. And Hyakujo says, the enlightened person is not blind to causality. He embraces the relative, he doesn't escape it. Now the old monk is saved.

Do you believe in past lives? If not, then what happens to you after you die? Where do you go? And if you just disappear, and are no more, what does that mean? According to the laws of physics nothing disappears, it only transforms. But what about consciousness, what is that anyway, and where does it go after you die? I don't know the answer to that and I do not think anyone does. There is something wrong with the very idea of "know the answer to that." It doesn't seem to be that kind of thing. You might think it's fruitless to think about such stuff; probably it is. But consciousness is our life every moment, even when we are asleep. And it is a strange thing that no one knows what consciousness is- and we can't even figure out how we could find out what it is. There's no experiment we could design.

In Buddhism the law of karma is very important. It isn't complicated. Its simplest formulation is, "if this then that." In other words, if you do something there will be a consequence to it. You can't tell exactly what or when it will be, because there are many many causal factors in the world that interact with each other, but one thing is really and surely true: that good actions will have good results and bad actions will have bad results. You may not believe this is true but I really believe it. This is because I have sat on my cushion for a very long time and I have gotten to see my own mind and my own conduct over that long time. So it is quite clear to me that good actions lead to good results and bad actions to bad results. I have seen it in my own mind. I have faith in it because I have experienced it.

But someone might say, well I have done bad actions and haven't received bad results. To tell you the truth, this is never so, but someone might think so because they haven't really examined their own mind. But if they think so and I want to convince them I will say, yes, but in your next life wait and see- something terrible is going to happen to you. If the person believes it he might be motivated to do good and avoid bad. This is what happened to the old monk- maybe he was fine in his monk lifetime but later on he was reborn as a wild fox.

You might think it'd be fun to be reborn as a fox- a good result not a bad one. I think that way myself. But in the story I think you are supposed to believe that it is a bad thing to be reborn as a wild fox. In China a wild fox is something negative, like a goblin or a black cat.

I have said that karma shows us that good actions lead to good results and bad actions to bad results; but karma is only half the story, the relative half. Nirvana,the absolute, is also part of the human story. The trick is, how to put the two together; how to live them as they really are. The old monk is maybe a little too literary, a little too one dimensional: he thinks the absolute and relative are different and separable- this is the way he answers. The new Hyakujo says no, embracing the relative completely: that's the absolute. Absolute and relative can't be separated. No one in this world is beyond karmic consequences.

What are bad actions and bad results anyway? In Zen there is no God who gets mad at you if you do something bad. If there were maybe you could hide from God and escape his punishment; maybe God might be looking someplace else, or be busy with other affairs and not notice what you have done. But with karma there's no such thing. You will certainly receive the fruit of your action no matter what God is concerned with at the moment. Things just work that way. I don't know why but they do. So you better take care with you actions of body speech and mind. You better learn what is good and what is bad and try to cultivate the good and let go of the bad. But if you do do something bad anyway, maybe you can learn from the bad results that will come. Maybe this is what you needed to learn. Maybe karma isn't a question of right and wrong or good and bad but Buddha doing what Buddha has to do to get the job done- to evolve toward enlightenment. So it might not be bad to have 500 lives as a fox if that is what you need.

Things happen in our lives and they are always workable. There is no such thing as "that shouldn't have happened." If it happened it happened. Then you practice with it. That's the spirit of this koan. It's not a matter of free from karma or not free from karma. Both are two ways to look at the same thing- as Mumon comments:

`Not subject to causality.' How can this answer cause 500 rebirths as a fox? `Not blind to causality.' How can this emancipate a fox? To understand clearly you have to have just one eye. Then you will appreciate how Hyakujo lived 500 fox lives as 500 lives of grace.

And the poems is also clear:

Mumon's poem:
Not subject, not blind –
One die, two faces.
Not blind, not subject,
Error piled upon error

In other words, karma is real and important- we need to try to do what's good and avoid what's bad. Every moment we have that freedom and every moment we have that choice. Every moment we are the boss. Every moment is an action point, a decision point. But also every moment is a result, the result of past moments. When we accept what is as what is and make our best effort with all our heart, willing to accept what will come out of it, and to work with that, then we are free- not from karma, but with karma, in karma, embraced by and embracing karma. Then we are human and Buddha at one and the same time. And I mean that literally- we are Buddha and not Buddha in the present moment, in the actual connected responsible presence of our living.

What about Obaku? Later on he shows up and asks, suppose the old master had answered correctly, would he have saved himself the trouble of 500 lives? Before the abbot had a chance to slap Obaku, Obaku slaps the abbot. This is their old Chinese Zen way of agreeing with each other. Practice isn't about being right about doctrine, conforming to a set of ideas and values. There's nothing to understand or conform to in Zen. All the Zen literature is actually quite simple anyway, and understanding it is no guarantee of anything. If you like Zen you appreciate that some people understand, but understanding is not the point. Living is the point.

I don't know about enlightenment. It may be that our Soto Zen practice is really bad and we forgot how to get enlightened. I don't know about that. But to tell you the truth it is unimportant to me. The other day I heard someone use the word crux and it struck me. What a strange word, crux, the crux of the matter. A crux is a cross, the intersection of two things- right there is the crux of the matter. Every moment of our lives without exception we are living in the crux of the matter. Even if we get enlightened now, then what about the next moment? Does enlightenment make us immune to the difficulties of the next moment? No answer is correct forever- just for now. This doesn't make it trivial or relative – it may be absolutely true, but only now. No way of living is correct always- it may be correct and true, but just for now. Every moment we are at the crux- the place where life and death meet, the place where time and the timeless meet, the place where Buddha and yourself meet nose to nose and merge. Crux, cross, also, in our culture, evokes the idea of terrible suffering, bottomless suffering, that contains within it the seed of redemption. In this sense too we are all always living at the crux of the matter. Every moment- even the moment of waiting in the dentist office or being stalled in traffic- has that density and weight, is that problem. Do we live our lives aware of this? Do we pay that much attention? I don't know about religion. The point is to live the life we are given as fully as possible, taking full responsibility for its miraculous nature. I think sitting helps. And teaching helps too- as a reminder. Please sit and study the teachings and pay attention to your life. Thank you.

A footnote to the case: thinking about this case further I appreciated how hard it must have been for the old Hyakujo to endure those 500 fox lives. I think he suffered a lot. It took him all that time to get to the place where he could manifest a temporary human form, so he could meet the new Hyakujo, who I suppose is himself, on Hyakujo mountain and ask for help. This is an important point – we won't really find a liberative truth until we suffer through our karma. This suffering is purifying, hard though it may be. We would rather avoid it. But it can;t be avoided. To fully own and admit our human life is to take responsibility for all our suffering – and for all suffering. There is no one else to blame. No excuses. There's a lot of sorrow and grief in that. We might have to swim in an ocean of tears. But we can hold that in the process of our practice, and then we can be free of it.

® 2003, Norman Fischer