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A turning word

We are what we do. And whatever we are, unless we notice and take corrective action, we just become more of it.
By James Ishmael Ford
9.3.12

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At the beginning of the ninth century, in China, the abbot Baizhang Huaihai, called Baizhang for the mountain in which his monastery was nestled, was one of the greats of the Zen way. His monastic rule would become the standard for the Zen community. Fiercely committed to a life of meditation and work, seeing them as two facets of the way, he lived by the precept “a day of no work is a day of no eating.” I count him as one of my heroes and one of my teachers.

I believe he has things to say to us as we try to find the liberal way in religion. He offers a complement to our own attempts at being authentic, at being present, and being fully engaged.

Now, with someone as important in the history of a spiritual tradition as Baizhang, well, history and myth intertwine. And so it is with this story. The abbot was in the habit of giving a talk that was open to anyone. At some point he noticed within the congregation an old man who had something peculiar about him, like an aura, but of what sort Baizhang couldn’t say. The old man would always stand near the back of the assembly, and would vanish before the abbot could speak with him.

Finally, one day, the old man lingered and Baizhang said to him, “Who are you? Or, should I say, what are you? And, why are you coming here?”

The old man smiled thinly, bowed, and said, “You’re very perceptive. I am in fact not a human being. Many ages ago I was abbot on this mountain, heading an assembly of monks following the way.” Now, it’s worth noticing that would mean he was abbot on the same mountain: The ghost was also an “abbot Baizhang.” The old man continued: “A sincere student of the way came to me and asked if someone who had awakened to her true nature, who saw clearly the play of life and death, and had achieved wisdom, was that person bound by the laws of cause and effect?”

“And,” asked Baizhang, “what did you say?”

The old man shuddered. “I said such a person is not bound by the laws of cause and effect.” There was a horrific silence that felt like endless suffering. Baizhang thought perhaps he smelled the whiff of sulfur. Finally, the old man added, “And ever since then I’ve been reincarnating as a fox spirit. So far, five hundred times.”

You need to understand a fox spirit in ancient China is a very bad thing, a malevolent being, very dangerous. Big-time bad karma.

The ghost leaned close to Baizhang, his breath smelling of rotten flesh. Baizhang could see his eyes had no whites and his teeth weren’t human, but razor sharp, like a fox’s. “Please,” the spirit begged. “Say a turning word, and free me from this hell.”


A turning word. I think probably we’ve all encountered such a thing in our lives. A friend says something; maybe we even read it somewhere. Maybe we’ve heard it a thousand times before, but this time we get it, really get it. And from that our lives shift, and we go in a new direction. It’s part of the human mystery that we have a hand in our destiny, we can make decisions, we can change course.

Baizhang didn’t hesitate. He replied, “The true person of the way, she or he who has achieved wisdom, is at one with the laws of cause and effect.” Another translation of these words says, “That person does not avoid the laws.” And another says, “The wise person does not obscure the laws.” Don’t obscure, do not avoid, be at one with.

Cliché? Or perhaps a direct pointing to the matter closest to our hearts—a pointer to a way of life.

Cause and effect relates to us as much as anything else. We, you and I, are moments in a great play of events. A metaphor we Unitarian Universalists like is that we’re bound together in an interconnected web of all existence. Everything is connected. Out of that realization we see that everything counts. Every action, every thought has consequences. We are what we do. I am what I do. You are what you do. And whatever we are, unless we notice and take corrective action, we just become more of it.

The story continues. The ghost made bows, exclaiming that he had truly heard, truly understood, and this was his last incarnation as a fox spirit. He then added, “My body lies a ways away on the side of this mountain. Would you please find it and give me a monk’s funeral?” Baizhang agreed and the fox spirit disappeared, that sulfurous smell gone. Instead, there was a lingering odor of sweet grass.

The abbot called for his assistant and told him to announce to the community that after the noon meal there would be a monastic funeral. When they heard this, the monks were confused. “No one’s in the infirmary,” one said. “What does this mean?” But they lived under rule and after the meal they all followed the old abbot as he walked out of the monastery and on until he came to a spot where he took his staff and poked about and prodded out the corpse of a fox. They returned and gave the fox a suitable funeral, burning the body and scattering the ashes.

That evening Baizhang told his assembly the whole story. His senior student Huángbò stood up and said, “Sir, what if the old abbot had given the right answer every time? What would have happened then?” Baizhang smiled, fingering his teacher’s stick, and said, “Come here, Huángbò, and I’ll tell you.” Here’s a dangerous moment, if a somewhat different danger than between the fox and Baizhang, to encounter a Zen teacher with a stick in his or her hand.

Huángbò would become another of the teachers who created what we call Zen. According to traditional sources he was a giant of a man, standing nearly seven feet tall, while his teacher was barely five feet, short even for those days. When the younger monk walked up to his teacher, just before coming face to face and just out of reach from his teacher’s stick, Huángbò reached out and slapped the old abbot.

Now, up to this moment, perhaps you have a sense of the point to be found in this story, the moral, as it were. But what do you do with this part? I have a friend who has studied this way for many years who can’t get past the violent images in many Zen stories: shouts, shoves, and slaps. My suggestion is that the answer isn’t going to be found if we choose to know what’s what and to impose something on the encounter. Let it be, as one teacher suggests, just put it all down, allow that maybe there’s a point for us, for me, for you, if we, just for a moment, allow what is to be. Remember grace, it comes unbidden, but mainly it comes to those who are open rather than closed.

As for Baizhang, the old abbot laughed and laughed, and declared, “They say the barbarian has a red beard, but here’s a red-bearded barbarian.” This is not quite as obscure as perhaps it sounds. The red-bearded barbarian is the founder of Zen, Bodhidharma—a barbarian because he came from India and anyone not from China is a barbarian, and red-bearded, well, because he had a red beard. Here’s a simple declaration of delight at his student, and a suggestion of how wisdom was being presented to the whole assembly, an invitation to a deeper stance than merely a nod to moral conventions.

We’re all going to be reborn as foxes. There is no escape from this life, there is no purity beyond the mess, there is no place we can stand where we will not be splattered with mud from the road. The text calls us to be who we really are. The true person of the way, she or he who has achieved wisdom, does not avoid, does not obscure, but rather is at one with the laws of cause and effect.

If we know this from our bones and marrow then grace dances into our lives and we will find ourselves transformed, and the fox and the human and the mountains and the great ocean and the vast skies, and you and I, become more intimate than even our dreams can ever say. One family. One life.

See sidebar for additional resources. Adapted from a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, on January 29, 2012. This story also appears in Ford’s book, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life (Wisdom Publications, 2012).

Illustration: "Little Vixen Sharp-Ears" by Foxfeather R. Zenkova.

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