If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
This week we’re taking a look at case 2 in the Gateless Barrier koan collection, titled ‘A Wild Fox’ in the Thomas Cleary translation, but perhaps more widely known as ‘Hyakujo’s Fox’. (Hyakujo is the Japanese version of master Baizhang’s name; I’m following Cleary and using their Chinese names, because the original teachers were Chinese.)
(If you don’t know what the heck a koan is or have never heard of the Gateless Barrier, go back to last week’s article and read at least the opening section, which will fill you in.)
Compared to last week’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it koan, this one is massive - I think it’s the longest in the whole collection. There’s a lot going on, and even a couple of parts to it, so let’s go through it carefully to decipher what’s going on.
Decoding the imagery and jargon of the koan
The first point to understand is that wild foxes are considered to be ‘trickster’-type characters in both Chinese and Japanese folk tales. The implication here is that the old man gave bad information to a student, and as a result was condemned to be reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes, which is a pretty long time. The implication is that it’s a punishment, although when you read the stories of these trickster characters, they often sound like they’re having a pretty good time, albeit at the expense of others. In any case, the old man has tired of his repeated rebirth into a foxy body, and wants to be released.
So he asks the master for ‘a turning word’. This is a bit of Zen jargon which refers to a pivotal phrase or teaching which is capable of flipping a student over from their current unenlightened condition into something much better. Such moments of insight are often called kensho, which literally means ‘seeing true nature’, in the Zen tradition. One way of looking at koans is as a record of turning words which have proven effective in the past. The trick, of course, is that one person’s turning word might be totally meaningless for someone else. And so the challenge for us as practitioners is to penetrate deeply enough into the koan that we take the place of the student whose world view was flipped on its head, and thus experience our own breakthrough.
After the story with the foxy old man, there’s a kind of coda where the master re-tells the story to the monks, and there’s a weird exchange between the master and a student named Huangbo (Japanese: Obaku), who would go on to become a very great master in his own right. I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because we’ll look at the central theme here again in much more detail when we get to case 10. But what’s with the slapping, and what’s the thing about foreigners and beards?
Tang Dynasty Zen seems to have been pretty rough-and-tumble at times, with teachers often using shouts, slaps and even blows with their staff. Sometimes a slap might be used to interrupt a student who was going down a rabbit hole of intellectual thought, like the word ‘no’ in last week’s koan; sometimes it might be used to bring a student back down to earth if they were getting too impressed with themselves (‘Everything is emptiness!’ whack! ‘That emptiness seems pretty quick to anger…’) Often, the slap represents the end of a teaching. Here, Huangbo is slapping the teacher (rather than vice versa) to indicate that he’s anticipated the master’s teaching and already understands it.
And that’s why master Baizhang says the weird thing about foreigners and beards at the end. When Zen talks about bearded foreigners, they’re almost invariably referring to Bodhidharma, the semi-mythical founder of the Zen tradition. (We’ll be hearing more about him in a couple of weeks’ time.) So Baizhang is effectively saying something like ‘I thought I knew what an enlightened person looked like, but it turns out one was hiding amongst us all along!’
OK, enough of the background. Let’s get into the meat of the story.
Are greatly cultivated people still subject to causality?
First, we might wonder why this would even be a question. Surely everything is subject to causality - why should meditators be any different?
On the other hand, maybe you’ve had a moment of breakthrough yourself - kensho, stream entry, kundalini awakening - and it’s flipped your world view on its head. When we touch into the place of our Buddha Nature, we realise that we’ve seen the world a certain way our whole lives, but that particular view isn’t the only game in town. We can find totally different ways to relate to our experience in which many of the usual rules don’t seem to apply - for example, we can find the boundary between ourselves and everything else falling away, and find ourselves in a place where the usual opposites of good and bad, right and wrong, light and dark and so forth no longer apply - indeed, don’t make any sense at all. And if we have a strong experience like that, we may wonder what else isn’t as set in stone as it has previously seemed to be.
This is a dangerous time for any meditator, and it’s important to have a good teacher on hand to keep you anchored (hopefully without needing to slap you!). Many charismatic cult leaders are people who have had some kind of genuine insight, but lacked the support structure to keep them accountable and ethical, and as a result went off the deep end. A good rule of thumb is that if someone’s teaching sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t get me wrong, Zen practice is wonderful, transformative and liberating, but you won’t be able to fly or shoot laser beams, no matter how enlightened you are. If anything, in the long run the aim in Zen practice is to wash away any trace of ‘specialness’ at all, and return to utter normality.
But having said that, if the ‘ultimate point’ of the practice is to end up back where we started, why bother to do it at all? And, of course, the practice is hugely valuable, and really does change things for us. And, in particular for this koan, our understanding of causality does change significantly.
I’d like to try to give you a taste of a view that can open up through practice, so I’m going to propose a contemplation. Contemplation is like meditation, but you’re allowed to think if that’s helpful. The basic idea is to give you something to ponder and see where it leads you, and you can do that however you like - by thinking about it, by working with it like a koan, or simply by sitting with it for a while to see what happens. So I’ll give you a series of short statements or questions, separated by asterisks, and if you’d like to play along at home, simply take each one in turn and spend some time, well, contemplating! You might like to meditate for a little while first to settle your mind, or you might just want to jump straight in. Give it a go and see what happens!
Bring to mind a recent situation which was significant for you in some way. Maybe you had to make a decision, maybe something happened to you, maybe you made a mistake. Bring the situation to mind as clearly as you can, and spend some time remembering the details. What happened, how, and why?
Now, reflect on some of the causes and conditions that led you to that situation. For example, why were you in that place, rather than somewhere else? Who was present in the situation, and why those people and not others?
Going back further, consider the path you have taken through life. Could it have gone differently if you had made different choices? Could you be living in another place, doing something else, with different people?
Going back still further, consider the influences that shaped you; your family, your upbringing, your education. All of these factors contributed to make you who you are; had they been different, you could be quite different today.
Going back even further, you are the product of your parents (whether they were present or absent during your childhood); consider all the factors that led them to be who they were, and how that has shaped you.
Consider your ancestors before your parents, going back many generations through history. All of those people have contributed to who you are today, and since the circumstances of their lives contributed to who they were and the choices they made, those circumstances have ultimately contributed to who you are and the choices you’ve made as well.
Take a few minutes to extend the net wider and wider, finding more and more causes and conditions which have contributed to who you are and the situation you began with. Reflect on how that situation, which perhaps seemed so simple at first, is in fact a product of uncountably many factors stretching back throughout history, all coming together in that one moment. Notice that, if you look carefully enough, you can trace connections between yourself and anyone or anything else.
Now let’s go the other way, and look at the impact of your choices.
Returning to the original situation, reflect on what happened in that moment - the choice you made, or didn’t make; the action you took, or didn’t take.
Notice that, although the situation is now in the past, it continues to influence you now - after all, you have a memory of the event, which you are able to consider as part of this exercise. So although the moment is gone, in a sense some part of it remains in the present, and has become part of you.
Notice that, as it is now part of you, that situation continues to exert an influence, whether direct or indirect, on everything you do from now on. Even if nobody else was involved in the situation at the time, the situation indirectly affects everyone you meet.
Now consider that the people you meet will go on to meet others, and thus the influence you have had on them will be passed along to others in turn.
Continue to reflect on this, noticing that ultimately even a seemingly inconsequential moment in your life may have an effect on someone that you couldn’t possibly anticipate, and may never even know about. Is there anything at all that you can be certain will not ultimately be influenced in this way?
Finally, take some time to reflect on this web of interconnection. Past, present and future are all intimately interwoven, all part of one seamless universe, no part of it ultimately separable from anything else. In the end, to accomplish even the simplest thing requires the whole universe to participate.
(End of contemplation.)
Coming back to the koan, perhaps we can now see that even greatly cultivated people can never be free from causality. Rather, the more deeply we examine our experience, the more deeply we come to see and appreciate the intricate web of causality connecting us to all things in myriad ways.
So bear this in mind, and maybe you won’t be reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!