The Gateless Gate—case two, Pai-chang’s fox.
Each day when Master Pai-chang entered the lecture hall to speak to his monks, an old man was there. When the monks left, the old man left. One day the old man remained.
Pai-chang approached him and asked, “Who are you?”
The old man said, “I’m not really a human being. Many, many lifetimes ago I was the abbot here and a monk asked me, “Does a great person fall into cause and effect or not?”
I said,”Does not”. In consequence I fell into the body of a wild fox for 500 lifetimes. Please say something which will release me from this body.”
The old man then asked Pai-chang, “Does a great person fall into cause and effect or not?”
Pai-chang said “Do not be unclear about cause and effect.”
Satisfied, the old man said, “Now I have been released from the body of the wild fox. Please give me a monk’s burial.”
Pai-chang later called his monks together and they went to the far side of the mountain where they found the body of a fox, which they then buried with full monk’s honours.
That evening Pai-chang related to his students what had happened.
Obaku, his senior disciple said, “I wonder what would have happened if the master had always given correct answers?”
Pai-chang said, “Come up here and I’ll show you.”
Obaku approached Pai-chang, but before Pai-Chang could do anything, Obaku slapped his face. Pai-chang was delighted and said words to the effect,”I always knew you were a red-bearded barbarian”.
That’s the story.
How many people are in this story?
It is obviously in two parts. In the second part there’s clearly two: Pai-chang and Obaku.
How many are in the first part? Potentially there are quite a lot: there’s the fox spirit; there’s the old man; there’s the earlier and later Pai-chang; there’s the monk that asked the earlier Pai-chang the question; there’s the mountain and potentially there’s others.
But really, I think there’s only one person—Pai-chang.
This story is primarily about Sangha—how we should be together.
If a person says “I am a master” he will fall into foxness for 500 lifetimes.
If he says “I am not yet the master” likewise he will fall into foxness for 500 lifetimes.
The fundamental point is that the master and the fox are always both present. It’s not simply the fox who is the shape-shifter—both are.
The monk who asks the earlier Pai-chang the question is not strong enough to stop Pai-chang falling unbalancingly into foxness. By contrast, Obaku is. And the symbiotic arising of the fox and the master is recognized by Pai-chang in his remark.
The reference to ‘red bearded barbarian’ is a reference to Bodhidharma, but the redness is also a reference to the fox— to fox nature. There’s also other interesting word plays in Chinese which I won’t go into at the moment.
How as practitioners together, visible and invisible, should we be with each other?
That is the fundamental question.
“One night, a great storm
broke off the highest branch
of the tallest tree in my garden.
It’s still there.
Even though it’s withered now
The living branches
will not let it fall.”