If You Get Silly Good at Zen, Will You Still Suffer?

downloadCan Zen practice, even if you’re really good at it, lead us to freedom from suffering within the wild fluxes and flows of this life (aka, cause and effect or karma)?

Remember that when the Buddha realized enlightenment, he thought that what he’d seen was too subtle for most. His post-enlightenment Plan A was to just sit under the bodhi tree and bliss out until his physical body’s karma was exhausted. But when he actually looked around at real people, he saw that he needed a Plan B, so up he stood and … here we are.

In our Zen tradition, the subtlety of this central issue of freedom is presented in the Wild Fox Kōan – a wild story from ancient China, involving a fox and a Zen master. In this post, I will be addressing only the subtlety of the first movement in the dreamlike story – the first question and response. You’ll find a new translation of the full story at the bottom of this post.

A quick summary of the first movement of the Wild Fox Kōan

A fox, who looks like an old man (who might also be an old man who looks like a fox), shows up after a dharma talk and questions Zen teacher Bǎizhàng (720–814). The fox/man, it turns out, is the former self of Bǎizhàng, so the story is about a confrontation of past and present. The fox/man’s wild tale is that long ago he had been the teacher at this very place and because a Zen teacher took the name of the mountain they lived on, both the former teacher and the latter teacher would have the same name – Bǎizhàng.  The former Bǎizhàng was asked if a person of great practice could avoid causation. Because of his answer, he was reborn as a wild (or “feral”) fox for five hundred lives. The former Bǎizhàng then asks the present Bǎizhàng to say a turning word (we’re talking to ourselves here) and free him. The Zen master does. A key question in the kōan is if a person of great practice avoids the law of cause and effect.


“Not falling” or “not avoiding” – subtlety of freedom in the Wild Fox Kōan

The common translation of the kōan has the first question like this:

A monk asked, “Does an enlightened person fall into cause and effect or not?”

The fox/man, old Bǎizhàng, answered, “Such a person does not fall into of cause and effect.”

This provides for a clear “wrong” answer that leads to five-hundred years as a shape-shifting, occultish, fox and stands in juxtaposition with the “right” answer that leads to becoming a human being. That right answer comes next: “Such a one does not obscure cause and effect.”

The key character here is 落, commonly translated as “fall,” as in “Such a person does not fall into the law of cause and effect.” Here’s the kicker:落 also means “leave out” or “avoid.” So the response by the former Bǎizhàng can also be rendered like this: “Such a person does not avoid the law of cause and effect.”

Now, there’s quite a difference between “not fall into cause and effect” and “not avoid cause and effect.” The second reading adds an important layer of subtlety to the kōan. The former Bǎizhàng‘s answer is (almost) exactly the same as the present Bǎizhàng‘s – “not avoid” (slightly less definitive) vs. “not obscure”(slightly more definitive). For kōan introspection, rendering 落 “fall” might obscure the subtle difference/identity of the kōan and the conundrum of this life. Rendering 落 as “avoid” exposes this radical and subtle shift in meaning and (almost) collapses the distinction between the “wrong” answer that led to a ghoulish  ground-hog’s-day rebirth in karma and the “right” answer that leads to freedom as a practicing human being.

The so-what of subtlety

Seung Sahn said, “If you open your mouth, it is a mistake. If you keep your mouth closed, then, that too, is a mistake.”

Answer A – wrong! Answer B – wrong ! Answer C – sometimes there is no answer C.

In real life, wrong and right are sometimes just so subtle. There’s light action, dark action and indeterminate action – the grey. You say what seems to be the right thing and get slammed – “Wrong!” “Go directly to five-hundred lives as a wild fox!” And sometimes in life, it seems that there are just two choices – both wrong.

Then, even a person of great practice falls down by, oh, so subtly avoiding, evading, obscuring the vital truth of this life right before us now – wrong and wrong. This points to the need for great practice because only such great practice turns the subtlety of suffering and hears and sees clearly.

And that’s the place – in the subtlety and changing faces of right and wrong – the kōan really becomes a kōan worthy of our attention, life after life. As Wúmén comments, “If in regards to this you can succeed in obtaining a single eye, you will learn how the former Bǎizhàng gained five-hundred rebirths of elegance.”

The key kōan points include the following: Say a word and free the wild fox now! If you can do that, meet your former self and say a word to free her/him from their wild fox body! And how is this person of great practice free here and now?

Dōgen, the wild fox

Reading the former Bǎizhàng‘s answer as “not avoid” also opens up the play in the Zen literature around this kōan. Not only will Wúmén’s comment (see below) come alive but Dogen’s comments too.

In Dōgen’s “Deep Belief in Cause and Effect (Jinshin inga),” he wrote, “More than thirty masters have written poems or commentaries on this story. Not one of them understands that saying ‘a person of great practice does not avoid cause and effect’ is a denial of cause and effect.”

Dōgen takes on some of the greats – Dahui, Yuanwu, and Hongzhi (who he often refers to as an “old buddha” so this is especially surprising).

I see Dōgen here as going into the swirl of thinking and hiding a wicked grin. He says that if you see the former Bǎizhàng’s statement, “not avoiding,” as affirming cause and effect, then you deny cause and effect, because there were karmic effects that followed from the former Bǎizhàng’s “not avoiding.” Therefore, it must have been a denial of cause and effect. Although it wasn’t.

In the swirl affirmation and negation, blame and shame, how can you free the wild fox?

Wild Fox Zen Translation Gateless Barrier, “Case 2: Baizhang’s Wild Fox”

Every time master Bǎizhàng spoke to the assembly, an old man was there listening. When they left, he would too. Then one day, he didn’t leave. Bǎizhàng asked, “Who is this, standing here before me?”

The old man said, “I am not human. In the past, in the time of Kashyapa Buddha, I lived on this mountain. Someone asked if a great practitioner even avoids the law of cause and effect or not. Answering that such a person does not avoid the law of cause and effect, I was born five hundred times as a wild fox. Please master, give a turning word and free me from the body of a fox. Does a great practitioner even avoid the law of cause and effect or not?”

Bǎizhàng said, “Such a one does not obscure cause and effect.”

At these words, the old man was greatly awakened. Making his bows he said, “I have shed the body of a fox. It can be found on the other side of the mountain. I would ask you master, please bury it as though a monk.”

Bǎizhàng ordered the mallet struck and the assembly informed, that after the meal there would be a funeral for a monk. In the assembly, there was much talk, as there was no one in the morgue and everyone was healthy. After they had eaten, Bǎizhàng appeared and led the assembly to the other side of the mountain. Under a rock using his staff he dug out the body of a dead fox. Then according to ritual, it was cremated. That evening Bǎizhàng came to the main hall and told the story.

Huángbò asked, “That old man only gave one wrong turning word and was born as a wild fox five hundred times. Would a correct turning word have made a great difference?”

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

Huángbò went up and slapped him once.

Bǎizhàng clapped his hands and laughed, saying, “You got me! The Barbarian had a red beard, and here’s a red bearded barbarian.”

Wúmén’s Comment:

Not avoiding cause and effect – why did he turn into a wild fox? Not obscuring cause and effect – why did he shed the wild fox? If in regards to this you can succeed in obtaining a single eye, you will learn how the former Bǎizhàng gained five hundred rebirths of elegance.


Not avoiding, not obscuring –
Two winners, one game.
Not obscuring, not avoiding-
A thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes!


IMG_1047Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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