A True Tale of the Zen Life

A True Tale of the Zen Life August 6, 2023

Cry of the Fox
woodblock by
Tsukioka Yositoshi






















(A few years back I shared a retelling of case two in the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate. It turns on the master Baizhang’s encounter with a fox. I’ve polished it a bit, and here’s the new and improved version, “The Song of Beyond Measure…)

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a nun.

She was a disciple of the master of the subtle shout, Horse Ancestor. She studied with him for many years before he named her his successor as a teacher of the intimate way. After she left her master’s community and wandered for a time meeting other teachers and testing her insight, she settled at the ruin of a monastery nestled on the side of a mountain. There she practiced the disciplines of subtle silence and dynamic presence.

She meditated every day, worked hard tending gardens and rebuilding the ruined main building. She also offered counsel to the villagers who lived below her monastery, and who in response gratefully offered to help sustain her and her project.

Now, these were terrible times. After a long period of astonishing chaos, a new emperor had come to power. He and his armies were on the march, restoring order with sword and fire. With that, many people were also on the road. Former soldiers from lost wars, refugees of all sorts. And, of course, bandits. It could be hard to tell the differences among these wanderers. And life was precarious.

Many paused at the monastery. Some stayed. In time a small community gathered around her, a cool oasis in a fiery desert. In addition to those wanderers who paused and then stayed, others came from the village and still others from nearby villages. In time some came from as far away as the capital to join her community.

The truth of the matter was that while it was an oasis of peace, the outside world seeped in. How could it be otherwise? Some of those wandering lost souls could be refugees and who could be bandits, depending. The educated and the illiterate, hard workers and those looking for an easy living in very strained times. Monastics and householders came and went, flowing as time and circumstance called.

She soon established a rough rule of conduct for her monastery. Later people would produce versions of that rule, which would become famous for monastics of the intimate way. Householders would also adopt aspects of it into their lives.

At its heart it wasn’t all that complex. The rule in its variations simply called people to humility, work, care for others, and presence to everything as it presented. In time people began to call her for the mountain upon whose slopes her monastery stood, Beyond Measure. Her teachings seemed subtle and true, so Beyond Measure certainly fit.

She lived in the smallest of the huts near the old building which housed the meditation hall. While older members had their own huts, younger monastics and householders passing through, all slept in that main building. At first she slept there as well, on the spot where she would meditate during the day, when not working or studying.

But her dreams were powerful and sometimes she would speak out of them, keeping the younger monastics and visitors awake. Some would sit up next to her in order to capture her secret teachings. Others, well, they just couldn’t sleep with the master muttering throughout the night.

So, in time she moved into the hut. She dreamed in that hut, as well. Sometimes the content was simply this and that from the day, a casual conversation, a task undone, a fragment of a memory, a bit of feather or bone.

Sometimes, her dreams recalled the years past when she too was a young nun. She especially found her heart and mind flowing back through the years to that time with her master, the great teacher Horse Ancestor.

One time she dreamed she saw Horse Ancestor sitting down and rubbing a tile. She said, “Master, why are your rubbing that tile?” The master replied, “I’m making a mirror.” She said, “Master, you can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile.” Then, the master smiled a small smile and replied, “Then how do you expect to achieve Buddhahood by sitting in meditation?”

She woke with sweat running down her back. And, as she shook her head, she realized that wasn’t an encounter with her teacher. That was her teacher’s encounter with his teacher.

Master and disciple. Disciple and master. Where did one actually begin and another end? Pouring out of the sourceless source, where did anything in fact end? That night she didn’t sleep any more. Instead, she went back into the hall, and sat in meditation.

Other nights she dreamt of that moment where it all turned for her. She was walking with her teacher when a flight of geese flew overhead, honking wildly.

Horse Ancestor asked, “What is that sound?” The younger version of Beyond Measure said, “It’s the cry of the geese, sir.” Then Horse Ancestor asked, “Where have they gone?” The girl, she really was closer to a child than an adult at the time, said, “They’ve flown away.”

At this Horse Ancestor grabbed the girl’s nose and twisted it. He whispered a harsh whisper into her ear, hot and moist. “You thought they’re gone? And, yet. Here they are.”

This was a turning moment. The girl became an adult, the way opened up. And she knew. Down to her bones and into the marrow inside them, she understood. It was a heart-knowing, unencumbered by analysis. The words were like those geese honking up in the sky. There. Here. Gone. Present. No different. All one. And, yet, and yet. It was her nose that hurt.

When she awoke from this dream, she also wondered, whose finger twisted the nose, and whose nose? And, of course, what about those geese honking and slipping away in the great blue sky? Then, with a gentle touch to her nose, she turned, and quickly fell back asleep.

Beyond Measure was in the habit every week of giving a talk for whoever wished to come. The nuns and monks also prepared a simple meal of soup and bread for anyone who wished to stay. Many did. Some, it was obvious, weren’t interested in the talk at all. And that was okay. Some even shuffled if her talk went on too long. The smell from the kitchen held their interest. And that was okay, as well.

She wasn’t sure when she first noticed. But at some point, Beyond Measure realized there was always an older man attending. He was stooped, and more ragged than not, more ragged even than the villagers. But he never seemed to stay and eat.

As she would talk, Beyond Measure began to look for the old man. He would stand in different places, but always at the very back of the hall. His hair was wispy and long, so thin it didn’t really cover his skull. He had a long sharp nose. He would lean in toward her, and he appeared to listen with full attention to what she said.

Beyond Measure tried a couple of times to go and greet the old man after her talk. But always someone came forward to bow to her and to ask a personal question or two. And she never could catch up before the ragged elder was gone.

Eventually the old man entered Beyond Measure’s dreams. One time she dreamed he was Horse Ancestor. Another time, she dreamed he was a vampire. That time she once again awoke soaking. Throwing off her blanket, and putting on her own thin robe, she returned to the hall to sit in meditation among the gentle snores of the younger monastics.

Finally, that day came. The old man stayed in the back of the hall, as those who wanted a word had their word, and then everyone left to eat in the courtyard. There were only the two of them.

Beyond Measure saw that while he wore his thinning white hair long instead of shaving his head, his robes were those of a monastic. Sort of the ragged ends of a monastic robe. But definitely cut in the same way as her own. There was also a smell about the man, she hadn’t been aware of before. She couldn’t quite capture what it was. But something not quite healthy.

“Who are you?” Beyond Measure asked. And, then added, “Or, should I say what?”

He smiled a not entirely pleasant smile and replied, “I see you notice I am not a human. Not anymore, at least.”

She asked, “Why are you here?”

He replied, “Ages ago I was the abbot on this mountain. I led an assembly of monks and nuns on the intimate way.” He paused and choked back tears. Then he made a full bow. As he did so, she realized this meant his name was Beyond Measure, as well. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up.

He continued, “A student of the intimate way came to me and asked, “Can a person who has realized wisdom tumble into the laws of cause and effect, or not?”

I replied, “Such a person is not bound by the laws of causation.”

The old man sobbed again, made another bow, and continued, “Ever since then, I’ve been reincarnating as spirit beings, fox spirits, mostly.” Beyond Measure looked closely at Beyond Measure and saw his eyes had no whites, and as he smiled his weak smile his yellow teeth, well his teeth were sharp, pointed like a fox’s. She realized the smell was of rotten meat.

“A mistake,” she said. And then, “What do you want from me?”

He moaned. It was like the night wind in midwinter. And he said, “Please, please, abbess, correct my error. Does a person who truly realizes the intimate way fall into the law of cause and effect, or not?”

Beyond Measure told Beyond Measure, “Such a person does not evade the laws of causality.”

Now, I have to tell you. There’s another telling of this story, where she tells the old fox monk, “Such a person is intimate with the laws of causality.”

And, just to make sure you understand, an ancient worthy commenting on this event and its variant tellings, informs us, “Actually, it has nothing to do with cause and effect.” Another worthy warns from another angle, “To say one is intimate with cause and effect denies cause and effect.”

Dreams piled upon dreams. Some even say that Beyond Measure wasn’t a nun, but rather a monk. And others note how the story took place in an entirely different country. And, maybe, a different time. Dreams slipping into other dreams.

But, whatever the truth of those things, in the immediate, with that encounter the ancient abbot cried, “Thank you, thank you! Through your endless kindness you have liberated me from this curse.”

He still had that smell of rotten meat, she noticed. He continued, “May I beg one more favor? My body is on the other side of the mountain. Would you please give it a monastic’s funeral?”

She agreed and with that yes, the body of the old fox monk began to go ever more transparent, fading, until he was completely gone.

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. Not a bad word.

At the end of the noontime meal, Beyond Measure announced to the community that they should dress in their celebratory robes and come with her. After which there would be a funeral for a monastic. The community was confused. No one was in the infirmary, and no one seemed to be missing.

But they all lived by the rules of the community, one of which was to listen to the abbess. And so long as her requests did not violate the precepts, they should bow into that action.

So, once all put their best robes on, which for most all of them, were in fact the same robes they wore day in and day out, they followed her in a bit of a ragged procession around the mountain. She used her priest’s staff as a walking stick. She wasn’t getting any younger herself. And the path wasn’t very even.

Once they arrived at a pile of rocks, she poked about with the bottom of her staff, until she found the fox’s body. It was small and red and stiff. She had a younger nun wrap it in a cloth she’d been carrying with her, a piece of silk that had been a gift from a court official, and then the procession returned to the monastery. There they performed the full rites of their monastic community, burned the fox’s corpse, and interred the ashes with the community’s other dead monastics.

One would think that would be the end of this story. But don’t forget from where it comes. So, later that evening, as the community gathered after evening meditation, drinking tea, the abbess told the whole story.

Yellow Stump stood up, and said, “Ma’am, you say that the former abbot gave the wrong response and tumbled into numerous incarnations in the hell realms. But here’s a question. What if he had given a correct answer? What then?

Everyone was quiet. Yellow Stump was a giant of a man. He also had a large misshapen head. And it was whispered he’d been a bandit. Some added, more quietly yet, maybe he still was.

Beyond Measure smiled. She leaned forward on her teaching staff, an old piece of gnarled root that was sort of straight, if you looked at it from one angle, and which had been presented to her by Horse Ancestor all those years ago. She said, “Come here, Yellow Stump. And I’ll explain.” She stroked the stick, just once. But everyone noticed.

One should always be wary of teachers on the intimate way when they’re holding a stick and encouraging someone to come closer. The monk stood up and walked directly to his teacher. However, when he was just beyond her reach even with the stick, she wasn’t very large, and he was, Yellow Stump reached out and gave his teacher a gentle slap. Gentle. But. Still, it was a slap.

Everyone froze.

The abbess touched her nose. Just a quick pass. And, then she laughed, and laughed. Beyond Measure said, “I was certain the founder of our way in this country had a flaming red beard. But, right here, I see the red bearded founder!”

Somewhere in the distance it sounded like wild geese honking. But it was hard to be sure.

Dreams. Dreams piled upon dreams, like clouds in the evening sky.

Now, up to this moment, perhaps you have a sense of the point to be found in this story. The moral, as it were. Although, if you were paying close attention, perhaps not. In fact, that would be a good thing.

But what do you do with this part? Always giving a correct answer. And then the slap. I have a friend who has studied this way for many years who can’t get past the violent images in many of these stories of our way, of shouts, shoves and slaps. Not to mention the insult to a venerable teacher. I get that. They do affront our sense of dignity, and correct relationships.

But no. The deep no. The no at the heart of the great quest. The “no” where all ups and downs, rights and wrongs burn away within the dark fire. That no which when plumbed to the depths becomes the yes that is our lives.

My suggestion here, however, is how the answer to the great question, the question that drives us into the spiritual quest isn’t going to be found if we chose to know what’s what and to impose something on the encounter.

Let the story be.

Let the dreams be. Let the dreams pile up and let that pile be. As one teacher suggests, just put it all down. All our burdens. 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, and how it comes unbidden. Although, also, mainly it comes to those who are open rather than closed.

I want to say everyone then lived happily ever after.

And, well, yes.

In some very true ways, in some very true ways, they did.

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and a Unitarian minister. His sixth book, the "Intimate Way of Zen" will come from Shambhala Publications in the Spring of 2024. You can read more about the author here.
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