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Dharma Talk by Nomon Tim Burnett : Gateless Barrier 2 - Baizhang's Fox

  • Wednesday, December 26, 2018

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Case 2 "Baizhang's Fox" of the Gateless Gate Koan Collection (Mumonkan) features the teacher Baizhang:

Pinyin Chinese Baizhang
Wade-Giles Chinese Pai-chang
Japanse Hyakujō
Lived 720 – 814

Tim's talk notes are below - he often departs from the notes but the notes themselves can be helpful.

Mumonkan 2 - Dec 26, 2018

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

9:05 AM

The second story in the Mumonkan - The Gateless Gate Koan Collection - is about cause and effect. About karma. About the incredible power of our actions of body, speech, and mind. And how we forget this power when we're lost in the fog of thinking that we're separate from everything. And the healing power of deeply unstanding our place in the web of Indra. In the web of life. In the web of relationship.

 Case 1 was at the short end of the koan story spectrum - remember the simple exchange between Master Zhaozhou and the monk who asked him whether a dog has Buddha Nature? The teacher answered "not!" and that's the end of the story but the reverberations of that particular exchange carry on to the present day and inform the practice of so many. Like so many of these stories it's about looking more deeply. It's about being the conventional mind of yes or no. It's about not stopping with a concept - "Buddha Nature" here as the example - and stopping to see below the surface of the concepts and ideas and words and assumptions we lay across everything we perceive.

 As we think about how our conceptual mind and assumptions and tendency towards dualistic black & white thinking operates I think we start to see that there's a real causal power just to how we think about things. The patterns we lay on the world. Our thinking/judging/evaluating/conceptualizing mind is a powerful tool that is so essential for us to make any sense of anything but does that process of sense-making also lock the world into what we expect it to be in all kinds of ways?

 The second story says so. Here  it is in Aikten Roshi's translation:

 [Baizhang's Fox case 2 from The Gateless Barrier by Robert Aitken]

 Koan studies often involve distilling the story down to a key phrase or even word. And in this case that has to be the contemporary Baizhang's answer to the question that so messed up the Baizhang of the past. "Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?" Is there this enlightened state that means you're completely above the fray? They say that Buddha's are so clear on the nature of things that their actions don't have any side effects and unindented consequence as they aren't the least tiny bit tainted by all the confusion we ordinary folks bring to the table.

 Please help me now teacher, says the Baizhang of old who's been trapped for 500 lifetimes as a fox, "Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?"

 Aitken translates the answer as: "Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect."

 One of Aitken's Japanese teachers has: "The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured."

 The early Zen pioneer to America Nyogen Sensaki whom I've been going on about has: "An enlightned person is one with the law of causation!"

 Whomever authored the Wikipedia page on this case has, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

 Another I found,  "Not in the dark about cause and effect." 

 So obviously the underlying Chinese is a bit unclear if the translations of it differ so much. The Chinese was more than I can make out with my limited knowledge.


I can make out (with Google translate's help) that he starts his answer by saying, "no" or remember this can just be a negation of a subsequent character.

Then there are two key characters that must be an archaic phrase or a reference
Shi - yun   [shi rising, yun falling]
Shi means division - to divide things
and yun means cloud - perhaps cloud also means to obscure like the English it's cloudy or clouded?
And then he says
"No cause and effect".

So the literal transation is something like "no, dividing obscures, no cause and effect" or maybe a little more intelligible would be. "Is the enlightened person subject to cause and effect?"

"Not divided from cause and effect" with the implication that this is an obscure business.

Which is all very interesting I suppose but how is this story with this cryptic answer in the middle of it helpful to us?

I think we can hold this as a powerful mythic example of the great influence of all of our actions including what we think and say. That it's time to grow up from the idea that loose talk or even loose thinking is no big deal as long as we don't do anything too bad.

Ghandi famously said,

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

And the process of practice helps us see more and more clearly and subtley how we are affected by all kinds of things, and how others are affected too. We're both resilient and very fragile. Sticks and stone break our bones and words very much do harm us and the right words also lift us up.

And as we refine our understanding and act more like Buddhas we do indeed do less that's karmically charged. We are less confused and more clear. The unintended consequences of our actions diminish. But never to use enlightenment as an excuse for our behavior. That shows up in some of the sexual misconduct cases in our lineages. The teacher convincing himself and the student that their innappropriate relationships is special and above the fray, pure, or even beneficial - "a teaching" - those teachers deserve their 500 lives as a fox.

A traditional verse for remembering to practice and how important karma is would be worth reciting regularly here if we could figure out a graceful way to add it - touhces on 4 key points, this verse is sometimes called the four thoughts or four remembrances. This is Norman's version published in Training in Compassion with a few tweaks by me:

Consider how rare and precious is this human life.
Remember the inevitability of our death and
accept the inescability of suffering in samsara.
Investigate the awesome and indelible power of our actions.
And you will naturally live a life of practice and benefit for all beings.

 If we live with this in mind we won't have any fox problems because living in this way we live with awareness, humility, and see there is nothing better to do than practice compassion and love.

Dogen appreciated this story of Bhaizang and the fox enough that he wrote a whole chapter in Shobogenzo about it - the chapter is called Dai Shugyō or Great Practice. It was written in 1244 soon after Dogen and his students created Eiheiji. The same Eiheiji that Ben and Christina recently immersed us in.

Like all things Dogen there is a lot there but just to highlight a few passages for the moment.

Dogen writes about cause and effect and what a deep practice it is

Investigating great practice is nothing but cause and effect itself. Because cause and effect are invariably comprehensive and completely full, they are beyond a discussion of falling or not falling, or considerations of ignoring or not ignoring. If not falling into cause and effect is a mistake, not ignoring cause and effect may also be a mistake.Whenever mistakes surpass mistakes, there is falling into a wild fox body and there is liberation from a wild fox body.

And he quotes another teacher's comment on this case which is interesting:

Baizhang personally met the wild fox; 
questioned by it, his heart was greatly perturbed.

Now, I ask you, practitioners of the way, 
have you completely spat out the wild fox’s saliva, or not?

And Dogen is also critical of the present-time Bhaizang's giving the full monastic cremation and ceremony for the body of the fox - which always seemed to me so deeply respectful of the old Bhaizang in a wonderfully mythic way - Dogen says

It is said that Baizhang cremated the body of the wild fox following the customary procedure. This is not clear; perhaps there is a mistake. Know that funeral services for a deceased monk, from the moment of entering the Nirvana Hall to the practice of arriving at the Bodhi Garden [place of death], all have set procedures and cannot be changed at random. Even if the wild fox lying at the foot of a cliff claims it is the former Baizhang, how could this be the practice of a great monk, the bones and marrow of buddha ancestors? Who could clearly testify that this was the former Baizhang? Do not groundlessly regard the transmogrification of a wild fox spirit as authentic, and do not make light of the dharma standards of buddha ancestors.

Telling us that Dogen took this story quite literally, not as a myth or a fable. As probably he and his contemporaries understood all of these Zen stories and very literally true. And there's a wonderful spiritual power to taking is all seriously I think.

So please consider if at some levels you think you're exempt from consquences. If you think "oh I can get away with this, no one will notice" and that kind of thing. Those are the thoughts that lead you straight to 500 lifetimes as a fox in the form of gradually seeing that there are always consquences to our actions, there is nothing we can get away with and our powerful words and thoughts and deeds ripple through the universe.

There's a story from Kenya about a forest fire. All of the animals run off to safety and are sitting there watching the jungle burn up and mourning and crying and carrying on about this terrible loss. But hummingbird isn't just sitting there, she's dashing around in constant motion. Finally one of the animals asks what she's doing and it turns out she's been flying off to a nearby pond to suck up the tiny amount of water her little beak can hold and then spitting it into the fire to put it out. That was the end of the story the way I heard it, I don't know if the other animals got inspired to realize we can all make a difference, no matter how small. That's a good story for us around climate change I think. So easy to run our fossil fuel cars and so on even through we all know full well that we are adding to this huge problem which may be the end of us.

Perhaps the our children and their children living through the distruptions and unknowns of climate change is our version of this story. We can only hope that things work out well enough that they can live those 500 lives. Is it all bad being a fox? To be alive is to be alive, full of possibilities.

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