The following is a Zen fable, a Zen koan, a “teaching story,” about a Zen master who was turned into a fox after suggesting that somebody who “practices with great devotion” is somehow above cause and effect, somehow above the natural laws of nature, and the rules of society. As an accomplished Zen master, the individual presumed to suggest that he is somehow above things, and as result, he was turned into a fox. The cause of his turning was his arrogant presumption that his connection made him somehow better than others. The “cure” that gave him back his human form was finally realizing the truth: no matter how advanced you might be spiritually, you’re still subject to cause and effect, laws, and rules. You are part of the physical unit, just like everyone else. The lesson of the story is quite clear, and even stated explicitly: “Don’t ignore cause and effect.”
This koan speaks directly to one of the Seven Pillars of Authentic Spirituality, as discussed in the Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Authentic Spirituality, which is that authentic spirituality’s should be grounded and embodied. The lesson in this koan teaches the [Practitioner that as long as you are in a body in the physical world, the physical universe matters. Therefore, make sure your understanding and practice is grounded in the material realities of the universe. Make sure your Self, your Spiritual Ego, is fully embodied in the Physical Unit.
Wild Fox Kōan
This translation is from Wikipedia. Please note, we corrected the grammar to make it easier to understand.
Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, “Who is there?”
The man said, “I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha”. The old man went on to say that “one day a student asked me, ‘Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?’ I said to him, ‘No, such a person doesn’t.’ Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body.” Then he asked Baizhang, “Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?”
Baizhang said, “Don’t ignore cause and effect.”
Immediately the man had a great realization. Bowing, he said, “I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?”
Baizhang asked the head of the monks’ hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, “What’s going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall.” After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock’s base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body.
That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, “A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn’t given a wrong answer?”
Baizhang said, “Come closer and I will tell you.” Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang’s face. Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, “I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!”
Tanahashi, Kazuaki. Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dōgen. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999.
Mumon. “Hyakujo’s Fox.” In The Gateless Gate: A Collection of Zen Koans, translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps, 1228. .