Baizhang’s Fox

Description

Allison Atwill, “Baizhang’s Fox,” 2011. Acrylic on birch panel with silver and copper leaf, 30″ x 40″.

Allison Atwill, “Baizhang’s Fox,” 2011. Acrylic on birch panel with silver and copper leaf, 30″ x 40″.

 

The Koan

Once when Baizhang gave a series of talks, a certain old man was always there listening with the students. When they left he’d leave, too. One day, however, he remained behind. Baizhang asked him, “Who are you?”

The old man replied, “I’m 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 student asked me, ‘Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?’ I replied, ‘A person like that does not fall under the law of cause and effect.’ With that I was reborn five hundred times as a fox. Please say a turning word for me and release me from my wild fox body.” He then asked Baizhang, “Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?”

Baizhang said, “Such a person doesn’t cut the chain of cause and effect.”

Hearing this, the old man was himself enlightened. Making his bows he said, “I’ve been released from my fox body. It’s on the other side of this mountain, and I’d like to make a request of you. Please perform my funeral as you would for a priest.”

Baizhang had the monk on duty strike the signal board and inform the assembly that after the noon meal there would be a funeral service for a priest. The students talked about this in surprise. “All of us are healthy. There’s no one in the morgue. What’s this all about?”

After the meal, Baizhang led the students to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain. There he used his staff to poke out the corpse of a dead fox. He then performed a cremation ceremony for it.

At the evening teaching, Baizhang told the whole story to the assembly. 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 the question — what would have happened then?”

Baizhang said, “Just come 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 right here is a red-bearded Barbarian.”