First Day of the Civil War: One More Meditation on the Fox Koan

Today in 1859 John Brown led a small band in a raid on Harpers Ferry. The group consisted of twenty-one men, including three free African Americans, one freed slave and a fugitive slave, hoped to spark a conflagration that would consume slavery and burn it from the face of the earth.

It would take a while, but it happened…

And, so, many call this abortive raid the first day of the Civil War.

I find myself haunted by this event. I’m a near pacifist, but, I guess in the last analysis, that near means I am not.

And here’s an event that I have a hard time separating from, pushing the issue up front and ugly.

Slavery was an abomination, period. And, the lingering ghost for me is the knowledge that slavery would not have ended in America for a very long time without bloodshed. And each day that passed without it being ended was a living hell for many, many people.


What is the calculus? Which innocent suffering justifies another? And innocents will suffer no matter what our choice, or even if we make no choice.

How do we wash the blood from our hands?

For me this question is inextricably bound up with the second case of the twelfth century Chinese spiritual classic, the Wumenguan.

For me it is the koan of real life.

The master Baizhang Huaihai gave a series of talks on the Dharma. Among those who attended was an old man who sat near the back of the hall. One day he lingered after the talk and the master approached him, asking, “Who are you?”

The old man replied “Many aeons ago I was the master of a Zen temple on this spot. One day a sincere student of the way asked me whether someone who had awakened was bound by the laws of cause and effect, or not. I replied ‘No, such a person is not tangled in the strands of causality.’ Ever since that time I’ve been reincarnating as a fox. Perhaps five hundred times now. I’m desperately hoping you can say that turning word and free me from this horrible fate.”

He then made formal bows before the master and asked the question. “Is someone who has experienced awakening bound by the laws of cause and effect, or not?”

The master replied, “Such a person is one with the laws of cause and effect.”

Hearing this, the old man responded, “Thank you, those words have liberated me. I am released from the fox body. I have just one more request. My body is around the other side of the mountain. Can you retrieve it and give it a monk’s burial?”

Baizhang agreed and when the spirit vanished he called the head monk and announced that after the noon meal there would be a funeral. This information passed like wildfire through the assembly. Everyone knew there was no one in the infirmary, so they were very curious. After the meal the monks made their way around the mountain, retrieved the fox’s body, returned to the monastery, and gave it a priest’s funeral.

Later that evening the master told the assembly what had happened.

His student Huangbo stepped forward and asked, “Master, what if when asked about awakening and causality he had given the right answer? What then?”

Baizhang smiled and said, “Come here and I’ll tell you.”

Baizhang was a very small man, but his teacher’s stick was sitting in his lap, and the wise avoided his reach. Huangbo was said to be seven feet tall so as he walked up to his teacher he came within his very long arm’s reach while still well short of his teacher’s; he reached out and slapped the master.

Baizhang laughed, and laughed, and said to the assembly, “I thought the founder of our way, Bodhidharma, the barbarian from the West, had a red beard. But right here with us is a red-bearded barbarian!”

The invitation is to take this little fairy story, or near history, Baizhang and Huangbo are very real people, my spiritual ancestors, our spiritual ancestors, as something important for us, here, today. Right now. In each of our choices in life.


First take away.

No one is excused from life.


Every action has a consequence, or rather we live within a web of relationships where every action is a vibration that shakes the entire web.


With John Brown?

Five hundred lives as a fox.


Five hundred lives as a fox.

Going to sit it out?

Five hundred lives as a fox.

What’s your choice?

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  • Desiree

    Whitch John Brown?

  • Desiree

    There’s this book, that I haven’t read that i think might relate to this question. The title is “Debt: The last 5,000 years”. The synopsis says it’s all about how debt existed even before money. I think this(the synopsis) has to do with this one question. Does it depend on who I am? Does it?

    If I am pilate, is there any number of bowls of water that will wash my hands clean? Were my hands ever clean in the first place? And doesn’t every person have his or her cross? Maybe…just know where it’s worn…

    …and try not to be too afraid of needles to give blood.

  • Desiree

    Are thoughts silent, or not?

  • James Hegarty

    Great post! Thank you.

    Regarding Baizhang’s fox – I prefer the translation “Such a one does not evade the law of cause and effect.” I know different traditions use different translations, however, I am interested on your take on why pick one over another.


  • jamesford

    Hi Jim, When I present the case in both Dharma talks and in dokusan I usually offer a couple of the different versions of the that particular turning point. Shows a little of the dynamic that way. Thanks! James

  • James Hegarty

    Thanks. Wasn’t trying to be critical, just wondering about the different effect of words.

    Thanks again


  • Doug

    I am a spot-on pacifist, so I’ll take up the challenge. When you consider the incredible suffering and loss of life of the civil war, coupled with the generations of people who continued to live in indentured servitude if not actual slavery, along with the ugly racist southern “pride” spawned by the defeat of the south, a misplaced pride that continues to taint our national character (I’m white and southern, so I know of what I speak here) — are you sure the war was justified? It may have taken another generation, but what if the south had come to the decision on its own to give up slavery, with no more coercion than the moral disapproval of the north and other non-slave-holding nations? What kind of a country would we have now if people had been allowed to wake up to a higher morality on their own instead of being violently coerced? I’m not in any way trying to balance the suffering of slavery against the suffering of the civil war, like all horrific tragedies, the two are incomparable, I’m just suggesting it’s not as clear cut as it might seem at first glance. I believe with every fiber of my being that hate is not cured by hate. The ends never justify the means. It may look like you accomplished something with violence, but cause and effect are inescapable. I do, however, believe in a very full throated, in-your-face, demanding, aggressive, uncompromising pacifism. You’re not going to hit them, but by god, they may wish you had struck a blow and been done with it by the time you wear them down with your eternal insistence that we are all brothers and sisters, and any action that you wouldn’t do to your brother can’t be done to anyone, for any reason.