Koan: Baizhang’s Fox
Once when Baizhang gave a series of talks, a certain old man was always there listening
together with the monks. When they left, he would leave too. One day, however, he remained
behind. Baizhang asked him, “Who are you, standing here before me?”
The old man replied, “I am not a human being. In the far distant past, in the time of Kashyapa
Buddha, I was head priest at this mountain. One day a monk asked me, ‘Does an enlightened
person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?’ I replied, ‘Such a person does not fall under
the law of cause and effect.’ With this I was reborn five hundred times as a fox. Please say a
turning word for me and release me from the body of a fox.” He then asked Baizhang, “Does an
enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?”
Baizhang said, “Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect.”
Hearing this, the old man immediately was enlightened. Making his bows he said, “I am
released from the body of a fox. The body is on the other side of this mountain. I wish to make a
request of you. Please, Abbot, perform my funeral as for a priest.”
Baizhang had a head monk strike the signal board and inform the assembly that after the
noon meal there would be a funeral service for a priest. The monks talked about this in wonder.
“All of us are well. There is no one in the morgue. What does the teacher mean?”
After the meal, Baizhang led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain.
And there, with his staff, he poked out the body of a dead fox. He then performed the ceremony
That evening he took the high seat before his assembly and told the whole story. Huangbo
stepped forward and said, “As you say, the old man missed the turning word and was reborn as a
fox five hundred times. What if he had given the right answer each time he was asked a
question? What would have happened then?”
Baizhang said, “Just step up here closer, and I’ll tell you.” Huangbo went up to Baizhang and
slapped him in the face. Baizhang clapped his hands and laughed, saying, “I thought the
Barbarian had a red beard, but here is a red-bearded Barbarian.”
This is a long koan with plenty of interesting facets to consider. I was recently invited to spend some time with the bit about the old man’s request for a funeral. What was that about?
It’s interesting that this was first thing the old man had to say after his long-sought enlightenment. Seemingly, his first concern was to pay respect to who he had been along the way; the unenlightened him. I think there’s a lesson in this. Whether our enlightenment comes in micro-doses, major epiphanies, or a bit of both, I think there’s something important about appreciating the person who took the journey. The person who struggled. Who did and said objectionable things. Who suffered indignities and unkindnesses, self-inflicted or otherwise. Who persevered along the way, with no true road map, to reach a different way of framing to world and one’s experience within it.
So, I asked myself, is this part of my practice? When I feel like something’s shifted, do I make a point of appreciating, forgiving, respecting, having compassion for, the me that came before the shift? I’m not sure this is always the case, but I can think of examples where shift and the appreciation of what came before were inseparable. And I wonder if true enlightenment is even possible without some degree of reflection on, and respect for, what’s come before.
While I was considering the personal side of this, I read the headline that the Sierra Club was repudiating John Muir, and other racist founding members. And repudiating much of its early history and work as an organization. And I though, “Here we go again.” As a culture, as a nation, as a species, many of us are interested in a collective moral and ethical evolution. And we’re living through a time of intense focus on what we’ve gotten wrong, and how to get it right, expressed through movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. And I’ve worried that these important and well-intentioned efforts over-correct, harm people, and distort history. I worry about cancel cultural, and a lack of intellectual honesty that it imposes. I worry that as we try to move beyond our tribalism, all we’re really doing is redrawing the lines of our tribes.
And all of this seemed to fit in perfectly with the koan. As we think we’ve achieved some kind of collective enlightenment, we’ve actually missed the mark. We’re not treating our past with the respect, compassion and contextual honesty it deserves. Nor are we allowing for open conversation about our present and future. And this runs counter to our goals. We’ve got to find a different, more open and inclusive ways to talk about these things. One that allows for respectful differences of opinion. Eureka!
…then again, maybe not. As I’ve spend more time marinating in these ideas, and trying to maintain intellectual honesty, if only in conversation with myself, it’s not clear to me that there’s a best way here, that if we could agree on appropriate funeral rites for our past, we’d necessarily usher in a brighter future, and do so more quickly. When I read the actual text of the Sierra Club statement (Pulling Down Our Monuments
) I think it makes some good points, and plots a laudable path forward, without totally diminishing John Muir’s contributions. I also think it misses some important historical context.
When I read the Harper’s Letter (A Letter on Justice and Open Debate), and the rebuttal (A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate), I definitely gravitate towards one side. But I can also acknowledge that there’s merit on both sides. Perhaps allowing both is actually the funeral we need. I don’t really know.
It feels good to pick a side and feel the righteousness of one’s cause. It offers a foundation from which to act. It’s much more uncomfortable, for me, to inhabit a place of uncertainty. So what to do?
The best I can come up with is to try to maintain an attitude of appreciation, forgiveness, respect, and compassion for all, living or dead, esteemed or not. And know that I’ll fail, frequently, but always with a chance to try again.