This case also appears as Case 8 in the Book of Serenity, which was compiled about 100 years before The Gateless Gate. But the interesting thing is that the case in the Book of Serenity is truncated, so it doesn’t have the section about the deceased Monk/Fox being given a Buddhist burial. And it doesn’t, crucially, have this final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku.
But before getting to that, I think it’s helpful to clarify a couple of things that make this story a little bit more comprehensible. Firstly, in East Asian folklore, the Fox is a shapeshifter. So a fox can assume, among other things, the form of a human being and successfully pass himself off as a human being.
Secondly, the abbot of a monastery will be named after the mountain on which the monastery is. So both the Fox/Monk, who was the abbot in a previous life, and the present Hyakujō, are called Hyakujō. Which obviously leads one to question how many people are appearing in this initial part of the story.
The other funny thing is that the Fox appears to have knowledge of the 500 lifetimes in which he was incarnated in the body of a Fox. But this is curious, as traditionally only the Buddha, or arguably an enlightened person – a great person – has knowledge of their past lives. And of course the 500 lives that the Fox says that he’s been within a Fox body mirrors the 500 lives which the Buddha is said to have had before attaining Buddhahood.
It’s also helpful to know that in Zen parlance, somebody falsely claiming enlightenment, falsely claiming to be a great person, or who is enlightened or wise but is unbalanced by that, for reasons that we’ll come to, is referred to as a Wild Fox.
The general commentary in this story focuses on the two answers given by the earlier Hyakujō and the later Hyakujō. That commentary doesn’t say that the first answer is wrong, but somehow that it’s incomplete. So the two answers are often referred to as two sides of the one coin.
If we take the first Hyakujō’s answer literally, that a great person doesn’t fall into cause and effect, then an enlightened person could do whatever they liked without consequence. That’s plainly wrong, but that’s not generally the meaning that’s ascribed to the answer. The suggestion is that a great person cannot fall into cause and effect is because a great person is never separate from cause and effect. There is no illusion of Self separate from cause and effect.
But of course that answer is vulnerable to misinterpretation, because a naive person could think that an enlightened person is capable of acting without consequence. So the second Hyakujō’s balancing answer is necessary because it makes clear, not that cause and effect doesn’t exist for the enlightened person, but rather that for the enlightened person there is no enlightened person.
With that in mind, here is my take on what I think is the hidden message within the story, which is clarified by the addition of these two sections of the Gateless Gate. And that message, which I think is hiding in plain sight, concerns the difference in the relationship between the first Hyakujō and the Monk who asks the original question, and the relationship between the second Hyakujō, our Hyakujō, and Ōbaku, in the exchange at the end.
In the earlier exchange between the Monk and first Hyakujō, so far as we can see, the Monk simply respectfully asks a question and accepts the answer. There’s a kind of hierarchical relationship between the Teacher and the Monk. The Teacher is the guy that knows, and he’s giving the benefit of his wisdom to the Monk, the guy that doesn’t know. Teachers are very vulnerable to falling into the body of a Wild Fox if the relationship they have with their students is one of unquestioning acceptance.
Moving on from that, there’s a homonym in Mandarin; the word for “beard” and the word for “fox” have the same sound. And of course, a Fox is red-cloured. So there’s a suggestion in the final exchange between Hyakujō and Ōbaku that both the Great Teacher (Bodhidharma being a red bearded barbarian) and the Wild Fox exist within the one person. And existing within the one person, yet being able to recognise that, stops the emergence of the Wild Fox usurping the Teacher. Your teacher is a fox if they are operating under the illusion that the Teacher is the Great Person, because the Great Person is the whole body of the Sangha, which is carrying the Buddhist teaching forward.
And I think that this is the symbolic function of the funeral, that it’s a collective effort that Hyakujō and the monks are all making, to recognise the body of the Fox. And in accepting it, giving it Buddhist funerary rites, is also to cast it out. For now.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.