Jesse the buddhist santa cruz therapist listens, reflects. She helps to pan for gold. All the nuggets say: time to go. Time's up from the administration dungeon, a profession I no longer fathom, the classroom, though I (sometimes) love the time there. Time to seek integration. Why lingering? There's too much to do, so I keep staying. She listens, and at the end of our last session, she becomes quite still. She leans back, then forward. She says, "do not become the fox."
I nod and shift on the soft couch, not quite comprehending. The room is warm and dark. I check the lithograph of birds above her head. I imagine Kitsune no Yomeiri, the eerie fox wedding in Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurasawa's film Dreams.
No, not that fox, the wild fox, the fox of fools she means. The monk who becomes a wild fox for 500 lifetimes because he mistakes the question of cause and effect. I don't know this fox, or how to follow the warning: Take Notice.
What's the story? I google wild fox koan and find many. I like Japanese Zen master Dōgen Zenji's wild fox koan.
When Zen Master Daichi of Hyakujo-zan mountain in Koshu gives informal instruction, an old man is generally present. He always listens to the Dharma along with the monks, and when the assembly retires, the old man also retires. Then unexpectedly one day he does not leave. The Master eventually asks him, "What person is this, standing before me?"
The old man answers, "I am not a person. In the past age of Kasyapa Buddha, used to live [as master] on this mountain. Once a practitioner asked me, ‘Do even people in the state of great practice fall into cause and effect, or not?’ I answered, ‘They do not fall into cause and effect." Since then I have fallen into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. Now I beg you, Master, to say for me a word of transformation. I long to be rid of the body of a wild fox." Then he asks, "Do even people in the state of great practice fall into cause and effect, or not?"
The Master says, "Do not be unclear about cause and effect." At these words the old man immediately realizes the great realization. He does prostrations and says, "I am already rid of the body of a wild fox, and would like to remain on the mountain behind this temple. Dare I ask the Master to perform for me a monk’s funeral ceremony."
The Master orders the supervising monk to strike the block and to tell the assembly, "After the meal, we will see off a deceased monk."
All the monks discuss this among themselves, saying, "The whole community is at ease and there is no sick person in the Nirvana Hall. What is the reason for this?" After the meal, the Master is seen leading the monks to the foot of a rock on the mountain behind the temple, and picking out a dead fox with a stick. They cremate it according to the formal method. In the evening the Master gives formal preaching in the Dharma Hall and discusses the preceding episode.
Obaku then asks, "The man in the past gave a mistaken answer as a word of transformation, and fell into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. If he had not made any mistake at any moment, what would he have become?"
The Master says, "Step up here. I will tell you."
Obaku finally steps up and gives the Master a slap. The Master claps his hands and laughs, and says, ‘"You have just expressed that a foreigner’s beard is red, but it is also a fact that a red-beard is a foreigner."
(This is a reference to the first Chinese patriarch Bodhihdharma, who brought the transmission of Zen "from the west" )
There are countless Ch'an/Zen medieval commentaries on the wild fox koan. Dogen offers several treatises on Hyakujo and the Wild Fox. He first gives a conventional interpretation of the koan, but towards the end of his life, he shifts towards a more imaginative and supernatural interpretation. Why did Dogen change his tune?
I go to Hein (1999) to understand these fox-persons in the koan. In Japanese lore, foxes are demonic (the nine-tailed fox) and shape-shifting tricksters. One can be possessed by the fox. They populate folklore and popular texts. (Bathgate 2004), so there actually is a connection between my fox wedding and jesse's wild fox. Hein reviews the sermon of Chinese abbot Pai-chang Huai-hai. In this sermon, the non-human monk confesses to fei-jen, the term for spirit possession in East Asian folklore, indicative of the six realms of transmigration. The fox/monk is liberated by the "turning word" of the abbot who responds that even the enlightened must submit to causation. Now liberated, his fox corpse is found on the temple grounds and he is given a monk's funeral at the abbot's instruction. The fox, Hein offers, is a door between realms, both philosophical and folkloric. In this first rendition, Hein says that the koan might be less about metaphysics of causality, as it seems to be, but rather about supernaturalism and ritualism. This is about the fox-monk funeral that the abbot conducts. You know already that I follow Dogen on this, from a formal reflection on causation to an interest on metamophosis and ritual action.
And why does Pai-chang receive a blow from his student after successfully cremating the old monk? The first of a Zen ritual of insubordination. A wake up?
Was jesse boxing my ears? Am I already a fox? Have I been a fox for these many years, possessed by the mistake of causation? In Turning Word, James Ishmael Ford reminds us, We are what we do. Reflecting as a UU/Buddhist minister on this koan, he says, "whatever we are, unless we notice and take corrective action, we just become more of it."
Shift, regret, act. Now.
1. Heine, Steven, Putting The ``Fox'' Back in The ``Wild Fox Kōan'': The Intersection of Philosophical and Popular Religious Elements in The Ch'an/Zen Kōan Tradition, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies Vol. 56, No. 2 (Dec., 1996), pp. 257-317 see also Heine, Steven, Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan, University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
Bathgate, Michael, The Fox's Craft in Japanese Religion and Culture: Shapeshifters, Transformations, and Duplicities, Routledge, 2004