Whenever Hyakujo delivered a Zen lecture, an old man was always there with the monks listening to it; and when they left the Hall, so did he. One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujo asked,"Who are you?"
The old man replied,"Yes, I am not a human being, but in the far distant past, when the Kashapa Buddha (the Sixth Buddha of the Seven Ancient Buddhas) preached in this world, I was the head monk in this mountain area. On one occasion a monk asked me whether an enlightened man could fall again under the law of karma (cause and effect), and I answered that he could not. Thus I became a fox for 500 rebirths and am still a fox. I beg you to release me from this condition through your Zen words."
Then he asked Hyakujo,"Is an enlightened man subject to the law of karma?" Hyakujo answered, "No one is free from the law of Karma."
At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened, and said with a bow, "I am now released from rebirth as a fox and my body will be found on the other side of the mountain. May I request that you bury me as a dead monk?"
The next day Hyakujo had the Karmadana, or deacon, beat the clapper and he informed the monks that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk. "No one was sick or died," wondered the monks. "What does our Roshi mean?" After they had eaten, Hyakujo led them to the foot of a rock on the furthest side of the mountain, and with his staff poked the dead body of a fox and had it ritually cremated.
In the evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told them this story of the law of Karma. Upon hearing the story, Obaku asked Hyakujo, "You said that because a long time ago an old Zen master gave a wrong answer he became a fox for 500 rebirths. But suppose every time he answered he had not made a mistake, what would have happened then?" Hyakujo replied, "Just come here to me, and I will tell you the answer!" Obaku then went up to Hyakujo--and slapped the teacher's face. Hyakujo, clapping his hands and laughing, exclaimed, "I thought the Persian had a red beard, but here is another one with a red beard!"
This koan was placed as the second in Mumon's collection for good reason. While the first koan Joshu's Dog is about the experience of samadhi. This koan in about the broader intellectual understanding that comes from that experience. The enlightenment experience has two aspects. One, is the experience of deep samadhi where the mind becomes completely quiet yet also completely conscious. The importance of this experience can not be over stated. It is the foundational experience for Buddhism, even so without a deep understanding of the intellectual implications of this experience, enlightenment is lacking. And it is quite possible to have a deep samadhi experience, then come out of it and have little change in understanding, and still be mired in the delusions of ego. And so we must return again and again to deep samadhi and actually investigate it's implications.
"There are those who pile delusion upon delusion and those, have insight after insight." - Dogen
This koan is about the nature of karma and cause and effect. We might think of cause and effect and karma as one and the same, and you would not be exactly wrong but also maybe not exactly right because these are very subtle ideas and can be thought of in many different ways. Our practice behooves us to investigate these ideas from all different angles.
I believe that most of us think of karma as not cause and effect in the way a physicist sees cause and effect. I believe most of us see karma as a moral principle of cause and effect. Our actions good or bad, return to us accordingly as good or bad results in our own lives. We may extend this effect to our future incarnations if we believe in reincarnation. I believe many people also think of karma as being equivalent to fate such as, it is my karma that I was born into this or that family and that I have this or that job and that I will die at this or that time. This way of understanding karma has been very important in the social engineering of Indian society, but if we are to understand karma from the Zen perspective we must put aside this understanding of karma and even the physicist's understanding of cause and effect and instead investigate karma and cause and effect from inside samadhi.
When the Buddha pronounced that there was no atman and that everything was a result of causes and conditions he was giving expression to the insight of his enlightenment experience, the experience of deep samadhi. This was infact a revolutionary statement because people had always believed that at least some aspects of their world resulted from the activity of gods or God and that there was this other realm of reality which was outside this seemingly physical world but somehow affected this physical world. This was really an anthropocentric understanding based on an incorrect understanding of how we humans work. We humans apparently experience a mind body dualism in which in one realm we have a mind which is non-material filled with thoughts, imaginings, desires, will, etc.. O yes, in this realm of the mind or spirit exists an individual spirit who thinks desires wills, etc.. On the other hand we have a physical body which is subject to the forces of the physical world but somehow is also controlled by the individual's spirit existing in the non-material. If this mind body dualism is how we humans manifest doesn't it make sense that the larger world manifest a physical-spiritual dualism. Then the Buddha comes along and says no this is all wrong, there is only one realm, the realm of cause and effect. Why did he say that? Because he discovered that the realm of the spirit, the atman, just didn't exist in deep meditation.
One might think that the Buddha left us with a completely materialistic, scientist like, understanding of cause and effect. One might think that Buddhism is more a combination of philosophy and meditation techniques which make us happy, then a religion. But I think this understanding misses the full implications of the Buddha's teachings. I also want to say that much of the Buddhist world does not fully accept the Buddha's teachings and is caught in spiritual-material dualism, it being that difficult to fully accept the Buddha's teachings. If it was easy to fully accept the Buddha's teachings we would all be enlightened.
The other day I was listening to a fellow practitioner tell me about his meditation experience. It sounded like he had some very deep experiences but not quite deep enough. He still was attached to an idea of an individual self. Though he has an intellectual understanding that the self does not exist, there was still a subtle attachment which manifested in dualistic thought. He had not fully proven to himself ( I cannot help but express this dualistically.) that his idea of his own self was a fabrication. The difficulty of this proof cannot be overstated for the roots of our idea of an individual self go right back to the beginning of life on this planet and each life form's struggle to survive. That is beginningless karma. Yet we humans as some sort of evolutionary cusp have the potential to make that proof, to see that our conventional idea of a self is empty, but then to be reborn with a whole new understanding.
Our whole dualistic way of thinking rests on our idea our own individual self. When we truly understand that our idea of an individual self is an illusion then our dualistic way of thinking collapses and then we can see the world without duality. So when the Buddha taught that there was no atman, everything is in constant change, and that everything is a result of causes and conditions, the deep implication is a non-dual view and understanding. But this also means that our understanding of cause and effect becomes non-dual. Hakuin called this "the gate of the oneness of cause and effect." This is not the normal scientists view where cause and effect is the process of interaction between individual things. This is a view of cause and effect in which there are no boundaries, that the whole Universe is seen as a single entity and that the whole Universe, past present and future, takes part in the manifestation of all seemingly individual entities. This is the understanding in which we are reborn as the Unbounded Universe.
So when the old man in this koan says that an enlightened man is not bound by karma where did he get that idea? There is this idea in Buddhism that the enlightened are not bound by karma. The roots of this idea comes from the early Hinduism of India during and before the Buddha's time. In this ancient belief system karma keeps us in the cycle of birth and death endlessly reincarnating until we purify ourselves of all karma, become enlightened. and then our soul (atman) can join Brahman, the Universal Soul, and leave the cycle of birth and death. This is actually a good metaphor for the enlightenment process though Buddhism has dropped the idea of an atman. It is only a metaphor though and demands a reinterpretation of the words soul and karma.
I was once given a book about the soul written by a Catholic priest, In this book the soul was equated with our inner desires, emotions, thoughts, all of which we use to define the inner me. The difference between Catholicism, and most religions, and Buddhism is that that inner me is thought to be a permanent essence which defines who the individual truly is and does not die but lives on. But in Buddhism we do not recognise any of that inner stuff as a permanent essence because we learn that it can be turned off by meditation. Instead we might think of that inner stuff as our karma and our practice of meditation as a way to purify our mind. In other words we purify our mind by learning to quieting our mind through meditation. In that moment, of perfect meditation, when our mind is completely quiet, when we have no past or future, but are totally in the moment, in samadhi, there is no karma, there is no soul, there is no self. And in that moment of awareness there is a recognition that what appears to exist as individual is actually a manifestation of the Universal. Thought we may say that the atman has joined the Brahman the deeper understanding is that there never was an atman only a Brahman.
In what way is the enlightened not bound by karma? The ideal of enlightenment is to live with a quiet mind and to see the world from the Universal non-dual perspective. Both these aspects let us be in the present moment, to not have our past history effect us subconsciously, nor to have subconscious desires for the future effect our thoughts and actions. In some sense all this meditation practice, and enlightenment lets the individual function according to their deeper nature as individuals without distortion. It is to discover that our deepest nature is that of compassionate loving beings not bound by greed, anger, fear, and the illusions of ego. Our deeper nature is that of the Bodhisattva, the Universal energy of compassion.
No matter what our insight and the mental cleaning we have done through meditation we are still humans, we still have a body. Enlightenment is not magic. It will not magically take us out of the realm of cause and effect. It will not magically cure us of fallibility. To be alive is to live within cause and effect. To be enlightened is to not separate cause and effect from our self, but instead identify with cause and effect, to see this whole thing, this whole process, this whole Universe as the Bodhisattva as ME.