THE LIFE OF A WILD FOX: A Zen Koan for Our Times

THE LIFE OF A WILD FOX: A Zen Koan for Our Times May 15, 2016


A Zen Koan for Our Times

James Ishmael Ford

Delivered at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno
Fresno, California
on Sunday, 15 May, 2016


The thought
of renouncing this world
is awakened.
But when this state has been attained,
still, still, the fox remains.

Daiko Myoshu

Let me tell you a story.

Somewhere at the beginning of the ninth century, in China, at a brief flowering during the long decline of the great Tang dynasty the emperor Xianzong was reconsolidating power engaging one after another the military governors who had come to rule much of the empire. On the one hand it was a violent and dangerous time, on the other, it was a time of arts and poetry and deep spiritual practice, which resulted in an amazing spiritual literature that today is enriching the whole world. But not to get ahead of things. It was one of what the Chinese, past masters of irony, have come to call interesting times.

In those days the abbot Baizhang Huaihai, called Baizhang for the mountain in which his monastery was nestled, was one of the greats of an emerging Zen way helping to shape what would be transmitted for the next thousand years. His monastic rule would become the standard for the community. Fiercely committed to a life of meditation and work as being two facets of the way, he lived by the precept “a day of no work is a day of no eating,” and sometime after this story when his health began to fail, and his monks worrying for him hid his gardening tools, he sat at the meal and refused to eat. His rake was returned before the next meal. Baizhang was a fierce teacher of a way pointing to the power of this life we all share, the human way, the way of the wise heart. I count him as one of my heroes and one of my teachers.

I also believe he has things to say to us, you and me, as we try to find the liberal way in religion, what I consider another facet of that path of the wise heart. He offers a complement to our own attempts at being authentic, at being present and being fully engaged.

Now, with someone as important in the history of a spiritual tradition as Baizhang, well, history and myth, of course, of course, intertwine. And so it is with this story. The abbot was in the habit of giving a talk that was open to anyone whether a monk, a nun, or just someone in the neighborhood. At some point he noticed within the congregation an old man who had something peculiar about him, like an aura, but of what sort, Baizhang couldn’t say. The old man would always stand near the back of the assembly, and would vanish before the abbot could speak with him.

Finally, one day, the old man lingered and Baizhang said to him, “Who are you, or is it what are you? And, why are you coming here?” The old man smiled thinly, bowed and said, “You’re very perceptive. I am in fact not a human being. Many ages ago I was abbot on this mountain, heading an assembly of monks following the way.” Now, it’s worth noticing that would mean as abbot on the same mountain, even if a thousand years before, the ghost was also an “abbot Baizhang.” The old man continued. He said, “A sincere student of the way came to me and asked if someone who had awakened to her true nature, who saw clearly the play of life and death, and had achieved wisdom, was that person bound by the laws of cause and effect, or not?”

“And,” asked Baizhang. “What did you say?” The old man shuddered. “I said such a person is not bound by the laws of cause and effect.” There was a horrific silence that felt like endless suffering. Baizhang thought perhaps he smelled the whiff of sulfur. Finally, the old man added, “And ever since then I’ve been re-incarnating as a fox spirit. So far, five hundred times.” You need to understand a fox spirit in ancient China is a very bad thing, a malevolent being, very dangerous. Big time bad karma. The ghost leaned close to Baizhang, his breath smelling of rotten flesh, Baizhang could see his eyes had no whites and his teeth weren’t human, but razor sharp, like a fox’s. “Please,” the spirit begged. “Say a turning word, and free me from this hell.”

A turning word. I think probably we’ve all encountered such a thing in our lives. A friend says something; maybe we even read it somewhere. Maybe we had heard it a thousand times before, but this time we get it, really get it. And, from that our lives shift, and we go in a new direction. It’s part of the human mystery that we have a hand in our destiny, we can make decisions, we can change course.

Baizhang didn’t hesitate. He replied, “The true person of the way, she or he who has achieved wisdom, is at one with the laws of cause and effect.” Another translation of these words says, “that person does not avoid the laws.” And another how “the wise person does not obscure the laws.” Don’t obscure, do not avoid, be at one with.

It was as if a bubble popped. With nothing at all changing, the world was now different, now new. Have you had this experience in something small or large? It is a gift. We don’t find it by asserting, but by opening. Sometimes people call it grace. The ghost made bows, exclaiming that he had truly heard, truly understood, and this was his last incarnation as a fox spirit. He then added, “my body lies a ways away on the side of this mountain. Would you please find it and give me a monk’s funeral?” Baizhang agreed and the fox spirit disappeared, that sulfurous smell gone, instead, there was a lingering odor of sweet grass.

The abbot called for his assistant and told him to announce to the community that after the noon meal there would be a monastic funeral. When they heard this, the monks were confused, as one said, “no one’s in the infirmary, what does this mean?” But they lived under rule and after the meal they all followed the old abbot as he walked out of the monastery and on until he came to a spot where he took his staff and poked about and prodded out the corpse of a fox. They returned and gave the fox a suitable funeral, burning the body and scattering the ashes.

That evening Baizhang told his assembly the whole story. His senior student Huangbo stood up and said, “Sir, what if the old abbot had given the right answer every time? What would have happened then?” Baizhang smiled, fingering his teacher’s stick, and said, “Come here Huangbo, and I’ll tell you.” Here’s a dangerous moment, if a somewhat different danger than between the fox and Baizhang, to encounter a Zen teacher with a stick in his or her hand.

Huangbo would become another of the teachers who created what we call Zen. According to traditional sources he was a giant of a man, standing nearly seven feet tall, while his teacher was barely five feet, short even for those days. When the younger monk walked up to his teacher, just before coming face to face and just out of reach from his teacher’s stick, Huangbo reached out and slapped the old abbot.

Now, up to this moment, perhaps you have a sense of the point to be found in this story, the moral, as it were. But what do you do with this part? I have a friend who has studied this way for many years who can’t get past the violent images in many Zen stories, shouts, shoves and slaps. My suggestion here, again, is how the answer isn’t going to be found if we chose to know what’s what and to impose something on the encounter. Let it be, as one teacher suggests, just put it all down, allow that maybe there’s a point for us, for me for you, if we, just for a moment, allow what is to be. Remember grace, it comes unbidden, but mainly it comes to those who are open rather than closed.

As for Baizhang, the old abbot laughed, and laughed, and declared “They say the barbarian has a red beard, but here’s a red bearded barbarian.” This is not quite as obscure as perhaps that sounds. The red bearded barbarian is the founder of Zen, Bodhidharma; a barbarian because he came from India and anyone not from China is a barbarian, and red bearded, well, because he had a red beard. Here’s a simple declaration of delight at his student, and a suggestion of how wisdom was being presented to the whole assembly, an invitation to a deeper stance than merely a nod to moral conventions.

Okay. This is a Zen story. It’s what’s called a koan, a direct pointing to reality together with an invitation to our own most intimate demonstration of how we understand the matter. In formal koan introspection practice there are in fact five points to unravel within this story, for some six. For our purposes, let’s talk about two. First, let’s look at that turning phrase about responsibility and our place in the universe. And then, just a little about that concluding encounter turning on the question, “Well, what if the correct answer was given each time?”

Suitable questions not only for Zen monks in ancient China, but also, just as much for us, for Unitarian Universalists right here in Fresno. I suggest. I strongly suggest, critical questions for people seeking the ways of the wise heart, a full-bodied encounter with this world, allowing us to walk with some grace upon this good earth.

So, what is cause and effect? It is understood many ways in different traditions and cultures, but essentially, across cultures, I suggest we find two points. The first is how things relate, one thing, or usually a number, sometime many, cause something. Literally, cause and effect. And this relates to us as much as anything else. We, you and I, are moments in a great play of events. A metaphor we like is how we’re all bound together in a web of intimacy. The point is everything is connected. And, out of that realization we see how everything counts. Every action, every thought has consequences.

The Christian writer C. S. Lewis had a vision of hell, where there is always an exit, a way out, but what takes people to hell is them cutting themselves off from each other, and in hell, they just continue to separate themselves, moving ever farther from the bus stop that goes to heaven every day. So, the more we follow the actions and thoughts that are damaging, the more cut off we are, and while there’s always a ticket out, it gets ever more difficult. We are what we do. I am what I do. You are what you do. And whatever that is, unless we notice, and take corrective action, we just become more of it.

So, a caution for us. And several invitations.

Pay attention and do good, is sound advice. But this is not just a lesson from a Methodist Sunday School. There’s another invitation to be found in that last bit, that conversation with the slap and the laugh. Frankly it’s what makes this something interesting for me. And, perhaps for you: It is an invitation to a life of delight in this world of tears.

We’re being invited into a deep ecology, the great earth household, an invitation is being extended for us to see how our lives are so intimately interconnected that what one does, affects what each of us will be. Here’s a secret consequence of that truth, we’re all going to be reborn as foxes. There is no escape from this life, there is no purity beyond the mess, there is no place we can stand where we will not be splattered with mud from the road.

Here we find we’re called to the ways of that wise heart, where we see how each and every one of us is precious beyond description as we are, and our very existence is inextricably bound up with every one and every thing else. The text calls us to who we really are. The true person of the way, she or he who has achieved wisdom, does not avoid, does not obscure, but rather is at one with the laws of cause and effect.

If we know this from our bones and marrow then grace dances into our lives and we will find ourselves transformed, and the fox and the human and the mountains and the great ocean and the vast skies, and you and I, become more intimate than even our dreams can ever say. One family. One life.

That’s what its about. That’s what we’re about.

Nothing less.

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