Zen and the Art of “What If?”

Could your life have been totally different had you never made a certain mistake?

We’ve all wondered this from time to time and sometimes this wonder becomes pervasive. Below is a Zen student’s Dharma talk focused on the explication of a kōan. Kōans are the folk literature of Zen and, in the Harada-Yasutani and Rinzai schools, are used as the focus of Zazen (Zen seated meditation). They elucidate, in poetic form, the workings of the phenomenal world.


Pai-Chang, Hyakujo in Japanese, was a dharma heir of Ma-Tsu. Zen, then called “Chan,” was young in China–this was in fact only the 3rd generation of Chinese Chan teachers. It was probably a fairly freewheeling time in Zen history. Foster and Shumaker translate Pai-Chang’s nickname as “Ten thousand feet high”, a nod to his lofty teaching. He was inclined to give lectures to his monks…despite having received some wild teachings from his own teacher, Ma-Tsu.

When Pai-chang, the Zen Master Daichi of Hyakujo, gives his informal preaching, generally present there is an old man. He always listens to the Dharma along with the assembly, and when the people in the assembly retire, the old man also retires. Then suddenly one day he does not retire.

I have felt like this, sitting and listening to zen talks. Do I approach the teacher or not? This time he does. That’s a change for him and the first real shedding of his shell.

The Master eventually asks him, “What person is this, standing before me?’

The first inquiry.

The old man answered, “I am not a person.”

Ouch. The poor man. This is important. This old fellow does not feel that he is a person.In a sense I guess he is not, not fully anyhow, burdened as he is. Perhaps he does not really know what he is, or who. But he is stepping out of that sense of unconsciousness, or trying to do so.

In the past age of Kasyapa Buddha, I used to preside on this mountain. Once a student 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.

Where I grew up in Wisconsin, foxes were considered varmints. People usually shot them for sport. It seems they were considered at least a nuisance in T’ang China too. There is a vast literature on foxes as spiritual beings in China also. Steven Heine wrote an entire book about this case in which he touches on this. Browsing online in websites about Chinese myth I found the following:

Fox spirits occupy the same mythological niche as the faerie in Western mythology.They are beautiful beyond endurance, elusive, powerful, mischievous and vindictive. In Chinese mythology, the human form is the pinnacle of creation. All animals, and sometimes plants seek to achieve human form on their way to immortality. Of these animals, foxes seem to succeed the most.

So this powerful being is maybe trying to both shed the fox skin and test the residents of this monastery too. Not explicitly, perhaps, but in Asia that might have come through. Questions in Zen seem like that – they have a glittering poetic quality, and there’s always more going on, and nothing at bottom. They are like icebergs somehow: the surface is beautiful but it’s not the whole thing.

Now I beg you, Master, to say for me words of transformation. I long to be rid of the body of a wild fox.”

Since he thinks himself a fox, he is asking to be rid of himself. Transcendence is after all devoutly to be sought, is it not? But how can you imagine being without yourself? This is not possible. It’s a perspective guaranteed to induce suffering. It just does not make sense as an aspiration in practice. But there seems to be a lot of this kind of talk in meditation circles.

Then he asks, “Do even people in the state of great practice fall into cause and effect, or not?”

Maezumi Roshi translates this as: “They do not DARKEN or OBSCURE cause and effect.” There are many translations of this key point, which leads me to believe it’s difficult to convey poetically. Some write, “EVADE cause and effect”  [Aitken], or “IDENTIFY with cause and effect” [Tanahashi]. Our text says “FALL INTO.” Karmic causation is of course a key teaching in Buddhism, so what’s going on here?

The Master says, “Do not be unclear about cause and effect.”

Notice the difference between this comment and the old man’s earlier answer of “they do not fall into cause and effect.” Master Dogen says of this comment, “This is just the negation of cause and effect, as a result of which the the negator falls into bad states.”

Most sects of Buddhism, including my own, have many fine practices whose apparent purpose is to free the practitioner from cause and effect in the form of dukkha or defilements (klesha), and past karmas. There are magnificent Tibetan Thang-ka depicting the Wheel of Samsara with the driving passions in the center and many realms of being; great joy and sorrows. So what is Master Pai-Chang saying when he says “Do not be unclear?” What is your own obstruction here? Where does this fox-spirit have you, and me, striving to evade and obscure?

Zen Master Dogen says of Pai-Chang’s response, “This is evidently deep belief in cause and effect, as a result of which the listener gets rid of bad states.” He says, quoting Master Wanshi (1091-1157), “Even as people discuss ‘not falling‘ and ‘not being unclear,’ still they are forcing themselves into nests of entanglement.”

I had better move on. Just don’t obscure.

The old man, under these words, 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.

He says “I am already rid of the body of a wild fox.” Already. Already! Is there anything you’d like to be rid of? Do not be unclear, eh?

[The old man says] “Dare I ask the Master to perform for me the rites for a deceased monk?”

The Master orders the supervising monk to strike the block, and to tell the assembly, “After the meal, we will see off the deceased monk.”

All the monks discuss this, saying, “The whole Sangha is well and there is no sick person in the Nirvana Hall. What is the reason for this?”

After the meal, the Master is simply seen leading the monks to the foot of a rock on the mountain behind the temple and picking out a dead fox with a staff.

Picking it out with a staff! Or in our relationships, our meditation practice, over and over? Poke poke.  As someone said to me in dokusan (A private interview between a Zen student and the master), “You can resurrect all that if you want to, but….”  For years my meditation practice was my staff, prodding at all the painful psychological material.

They then cremate it according to the formal method. In the evening the Master preaches in the hall and discusses the preceding episode.

Obaku then asks, “The man in the past answered mistakenly with words of transformation, and fell into the body of a fox for five hundred lives. If he had gone on without making a mistake, what would have become of him?”

This last statement was, for me, the true turning word in this case. I worked on it back in late 1996 at Mountain Lamp. I was going through yet another difficult breakup with a girlfriend and sitting with the usual suspects: punitive guilt, hyper-responsibility, and long rumination about what I might have done differently–coulda-woulda-shoulda, as my friend Bob said. This is something of a collapsed state to be in; very constricting to someone inside it. It is really an awesome weight to carry, and I think so many in our culture now are burdened with this. It is omnipresent in my therapy patients: this persistent intimation that they have done something terribly wrong to ruin their lives.

When my teacher Jack Duffy and I did this case, I used Aitken Roshi’s translation – “what if he had given the right answer each time he was asked a question – what would have happened then?”

What do you all think? What would have happened? To the old fellow? To me? To yourself?

Many of us come to zen having been conditioned to think that “The Right Answer” is a very important thing. And it is. When I go the hospital, I want the nurse or doctor or whatever to have the right answer! But we globalize it to include everything: relationships to loved ones, friends, and the world around us. How confining. Back to the case:

The Master says, “Step up here. I will tell you.”

He is testing Obaku here. Perhaps Pai-Change senses that Obaku is ready to step up in the monastery.

Obaku finally steps up and gives the Master a slap.

If I did this in therapy I would be sued. And I am grateful that Jack does not work this way. But in that place and time, this gesture brought things to fruition. Obaku saw withthe same clarity as his master. I don’t think the slap need be taken literally–though those were rougher times, I am sure! To this day Tibetan monks slap their hands in each other’s faces while debating, so perhaps this is what happened.

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.”

I would find it a burden to be compared to Bodhidharma [to whom the “red-bearded foreigner” is a clear reference], but that would be the fox body again wouldn’t it?

Mistakes themselves are the fox body, my body, the world of cause and effect. They are not really mistakes, and surely not personal. How narcissistic to assume that it was “up to me” to give the right answer and make something different out of it all.

I think one could ask, “Then are there no standards, no right and wrong at all, no ethics?”

This is a longstanding Vajrayana and Theravada criticism of Zen, actually; that Zen moves into experiences of emptiness too fast, before people have an ethical compass. I suppose if one were a psychopath and ran with it there actually could be a danger in realizing the clarity and flow of cause and effect. But I think I am neurotic enough to continue taking on the responsibility to some extent for the rest of my life!

W.S. Merwin also has a beautiful rendition of this story in his book The Vixen. It is called “Fox Sleep.” He translates the case and then offers his own verses at  the end. As I have used a somewhat prosaic translation here, I think it’s good to end with part of this poem:

I was crossing the bars of shadow and seeing ahead of me the wide silent valley full of silver light and there just at the corner of the land that I had come back to so many times and now was leaving at the foot of the wall built of pale stone I saw the body stretched in the grass and it was a fox a vixen just dead with no sign of how it had come to happen no blood the long fur warm in the dewy grass nothing broken or lost or torn or unfinished I carried her home to bury her in the garden in the morning of the clear autumn that she had left and to stand afterward in the turning daylight.

There is a great gentleness in this poem toward the fox. I think it is in contrast to the aggressive tone of my early years of Zen practice and my own inner voices. Koan study has always brought these to the fore in my life, and I must be grateful for that, for all the times I wanted to negate the fox body and missed seeing that cause and effect were not unclear, and that I could bury the fox, though I did not have to, with great tenderness, as you can, in the answer you give, and are, each moment of this life, and for 500 lives, and the lives of trees and clouds. And foxes.

Scott Ruplin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He starting practicing Buddhism in 1989 both in this country and abroad while in the Peace Corps in remote Nepal. After his return to the US, he went to graduate school to earn his MSW and began practicing therapy in 1998. Since 1996, he has been a member of the Diamond Sangha school of Zen and now practices at Mountain Lamp Community under his teacher, Jack Duffy, a dharma heir of Robert Aitken Roshi.

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