Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 2: Hyakujo's Fox

image: The Gateless Gate blog
I had forgotten to post this koan! Maybe I didn't because, back over four years ago when I first integrated the Mumonkan into my Zen practice, I wasn't sure if I was going to stick with it. Or it perhaps it's because I didn't think I had solved it. (Or maybe I just dreaded typing it!). Whatever. I went back into my journal so the Mumonkan thread would be complete.

When Hyakujo Osho delivered a certain series of sermons, an old man always followed the monks to the main hall and listened to him. When the monks left the hall, the old man would also leave. One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujo asked him, "Who are you, standing here before me?" The old man replied, "I am not a human being. In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha, I was a head monk, living here on this mountain. One day a student asked me, "Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation of not?" I answered, "No, he does not." Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?" Hyakujo answered, "He does not ignore causation." No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened. Making his bows, he said, "I am emancipated from my life as a fox. I shall remain on this mountain. I have a favor to ask of you: would you please bury my body as that of a dead monk."

Hyakujo had the director of the monks strike with the gavel and inform everyone that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk. The monks wondered at this, saying, "Everyone is in good health; nobody is in the sick ward. What does this mean?" After the meal Hyakujo led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain and with his staff poked out the dead body of a fox and performed the ceremony of cremation. That evening he ascended the rostrum and told the monks the whole story. Obaku thereupon asked him, "The old man gave the wrong answer and was doomed to be a fox for five hundred rebirths, Now, suppose he had given the right answer, what would have happened then?" Hyakujo said, "You come here to me, and I will tell you." Obaku went up to Hyakujo and boxed his ears. Hyakujo clapped his hands with a laugh and exclaimed, "I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself."

Yeah, it's a long koan and it's rather unique because of its length. It's also unique because it contains this fantastical, supernatural story involving a form of 'divine punishment', which I find distasteful. After reading my notes about it in my journal, I think it's pretty clear I didn't really 'solve' it.  Maybe the length threw me?

My initial reaction had been to ignore the wacky story and focus on the interaction with Obaku. However, as I think about it now, that was probably a mistake (more on that in a bit). What I initially got out of this koan is how dangerous it is to give answers (this is why Obaku boxed Hyakujo's ears and why Hyakujo was so pleased that he did so). It's really suggesting that the old man's offense was not giving the wrong answer but because he gave an answer at all. To extend this, perhaps we are all foxes when we try to tell people 'answers' or hand them 'truths'.

Image: Marvin Schulz
This lesson also touches on perception through it's 'Russian doll' structure. The koan's structure is a story within a story within a story. The writer of the koan is telling us about Hyakujo, who has apparently related to him this story about an old man he met, and the old man is telling Hyakujo a yarn about being made a fox. So we are, at minimum, third or fourth hand from reality. This is another possible reason for Obaku to box Hyakujo's ears, for they were discussing interpretations of recollections of experiences, rather than dealing in direct perceptions.

Now, back to my mistake in dismissing the wacky story. In the story, Hyakujo's answer about whether an enlightened man is subject to causation is: "He does not ignore causation." This made me think of, how when I sit in zazen, thoughts always come to me as I clear my mind. What I've learned is that if I try to ignore those thoughts or silence them, they persist. It's better to acknowledge them, even as I do not pursue them. I imagine them as small helium balloon drifting towards me. I acknowledge each one and think "later" to send it away. Doing this make it much easier to clear my mind. This might be similar to what Hyakujo meant in his answer. Whether we are able to keep something from impacting us or not isn't the point; we cannot ignore it if we want to stay in the right mind state. Ignoring or suppressing something is an activity. An alert mind can be clear, but and active one? Probably not so much.

These are all nice take aways, but I'm still not sure I've exhausted this koan. Perhaps that was the reason I didn't post it way back when I worked with it, and it wasn't until much later (Koan 12) that I really grasped that koan study cannot be viewed as a relay race. Not getting a particular koan isn't a bad thing, and it's not something to be stymied by.

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