Case # 2 of the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) presents the case of Hakujo and the Fox. According to this koan, an old monk told Master Hakujo that he had once been an abbot of a Zen Monastery and was asked by a student if one who has experienced enlightenment is still subject to the law of cause and effect otherwise known as karma. It is said that the old man denied this truth and as a consequence was reborn for the next 500 lifetimes in the body of a fox.
In ancient China, being reborn as a fox was no small matter as the fox was thought of as a disreputable animal and evidence of a very low birth. To live the life of a fox was thought to be a very miserable experience – clearly one to be avoided if possible.
In effect, this koan raises the question of whether or not we can ever be free of the consequences of our actions. Is it always true that what goes around comes around? Do we always either directly or indirectly reap what we sow? In other words, are we really subject to the law of karma – the law of cause and effect?
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects thousands of uniformed services professionals; i.e., firefighters, cops, emergency medical personnel, veterans, etc., each year. It is a very difficult disorder to live with and not an easy way to go.
PTSD is characterized by a number of pernicious symptoms experienced by those who carry it. They include recurring, distressing recollections of traumatic events including images, thoughts, or perceptions of the horrific events they have perpetrated our encountered. Their dreams are haunted by post traumatic memories and their bodies triggered by internal and external symbolic cues associated with remembrances of death, destruction, fear and pain. The unintended effect of all of this is intense psychological suffering.
In time, they have difficulty sleeping, concentrating and are prone to irritability and angry outbursts. They are easily startled and increasingly organize their daily lives around efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, activities, places, people or conversations that might arouse the dreaded symptoms of this disorder. They become increasingly hypervigilant seeing threats to their well being at every turn. The loss of interest and participation in significant life activities is a common occurrence. They often sense a foreshortened future in regard to having a career, marriage, family, children or a normal life span. In severe cases, they drift into a sense of detachment from life and a restricted range of affect including an inability to experience loving feelings towards anything or anyone, least of all themselves. In other words, they become like the fox alluded to above.
When the old monk asked Hakujo whether or not someone who has experienced enlightenment is subject to the law of cause and effect, Hakujo answered by saying, “Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect.” Upon hearing this, the old monk was liberated from his fox body and was reborn as a monk once again.
But what is meant by the statement, “Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect.”? Ernst Mach, a 19th century physicist and philosopher, whose work helped Einstein develop his theory of relativity wrote the following regarding the notion of cause and effect, “There is no cause and effect in nature; nature has but an individual existence; nature simply is.”
What happens to the notion of cause and effect when we are simply willing to be with the consequences of our actions just as they are without the desire to evade or avoid them? What happens when we are willing to “not wear a tearful face” and live out the truth of our lives no matter how difficult or heart rendering it is to do so?
I read that the Buddha said that the consequences of his actions were his truest belongings, the ground upon which he stood. The life of a fox is a full and complete life nonetheless.
Summing up his commentary on the koan of Hakujo and the Fox, Master Mumon writes a poem:
Not falling, not ignoring:
Odd and even are on one die.
Not ignoring, not falling:
Hundreds of thousands of regrets!
When we are willing to face our own music, a hard life can produce the sweetest song.