Five Hundred Joyful Lives as a Fox

Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei
Book of Serenity, Case 8
Baizhang’s “Fox”

Featured in Mountain Record 27.2, Winter 2008

The Pointer

If you keep so much as the letter a in your mind, you’ll go to hell like an arrow shot; one drop of wild fox slobber, when swallowed, cannot be spit out for thirty years. It is not that the order is strict in India; it’s just that the ignoramus’s karma is heavy. Has there ever been anyone who mistakenly transgressed?

The Main Case

When Baizhang lectured in the hall, there was always an old man who listened to the teaching and then dispersed with the crowd. One day he didn’t leave; Baizhang then asked him, “Who is this standing there?”

The old man said, “In antiquity, in the time of the ancient Buddha Kashyapa, I lived on this mountain. A student asked, ‘Does a greatly cultivated person still fall into cause and effect or not?’ I answered him, ‘He does not fall into cause and effect,’ and I fell into a wild fox body for five hundred lives. Now I ask the teacher to turn a word on my behalf.”

Baizhang said, “He is not blind to cause and effect.”

The old man was greatly enlightened at these words.

The Capping Verse

A foot of water, a fathom of wave.
For five hundred lives he couldn’t do a thing.
‘Not falling,’ ‘not blind,’ they haggle,
As before entering a nest of complications.
Ah, ha! ha!
If you are clear and free
There’s no objection to my babble.
The spirit songs and shrine dances spontaneously form a harmony—
Clapping in the intervals, singing ‘li-la.’


Photo by Joel Sansho Benton


One of the great koans of the Zen tradition, Baizhang’s “Fox” is classified as a nanto koan—difficult to pass through. From one perspective it seems to be clearly speaking about causation, about karma. And while this is true, the heart of the koan is pointing to something very fundamental.