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Hyakujo's Fox

12 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 March 2009 10:14AM

From "Hyakujo's Fox", #2 of the 49 koans in The Gateless Gate:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?'

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: "The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation." For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox's body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?'

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.'

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened.

Mumon's poem:

Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.

It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox.

Comments (31)

Comment author: Annoyance 24 March 2009 05:17:49PM 13 points [-]

Strange how Aesop has such a reputation for wisdom and yet believed that frogs could elect a log as king. It's almost as though the stories are just metaphors...

What symbolic associations do foxes traditionally have in fables, particular Eastern ones? Perhaps asking that question would prove useful in shedding some light on this story.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 24 March 2009 06:21:39PM *  12 points [-]

shedding some light on this story.

Let's start by hearing the rest of it...

Hyakujo said: "The enlightened man is one with the law of causation." At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened....

..."I am emancipated," he said, paying homage with a deep bow. "I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk." The he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. "No one was sick in the infirmary," wondered the monks. "What does our teacher mean?"

After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: "I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?"

Hyakujo said: "You come here near me and I will tell you."

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher's face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. "I thought a Persian had a red beard," he said, "and now I know a Persian who has a red beard."

[fin]

HT to Zen Corner

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 01:57:56AM *  5 points [-]

I've always thought this was one of the hardest koans in the Mumonkan. Even knowing the basics of foxes - long-lived, nigh immortal, supernatural trickster magical beasts - doesn't help much at all.

And even when you think you perhaps understand the causation bits, you still have no idea what on earth that Persian stuff is about!

Counting on Wumen's commentary to clarify things? Well, he makes the causality a bit clearer, but leaves the rest as mud:

`The enlightened man is not subject.' How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.' How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.

(Incidentally, no hat tip is merited. That page is rather incomplete.)

EDIT: turns out I'm not the only one who thinks it's unusually hard. Wikipedia has:

"The meaning of the kōan has been the object of intense debate and scrutiny within Zen due to its complexity and multi-layered themes. It was rated by Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) as a nantō kōan, one that is "difficult to pass through" but has the ability to facilitate "postenlightenment cultivation" or "realization beyond realization" (shōtaichōyō).[1] Important themes include causality (karma in Buddhism), the power of language, reincarnation, and the folklore elements involved in the insertion of the fox into the tale."

Comment author: Annoyance 25 March 2009 03:21:19PM 4 points [-]

"And even when you think you perhaps understand the causation bits, you still have no idea what on earth that Persian stuff is about!"

I've always thought that it would be roughly equivalent to "I believed something without ever having any direct evidence, and now I see that the belief was accurate". Essentially, that the student finally demonstrated conclusively that he understood the process behind the responses of Zen teachers.

But there are probably multiple levels of interpretation, of which that is only the most obvious.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 25 March 2009 02:03:20PM 1 point [-]

Per Wikipedia's translation

"I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!"

That surely refers to Daruma.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 24 March 2009 04:18:14PM 8 points [-]

Sounds profound, but I wonder whether the correctness of these koans shows anything besides the selection bias.

Comment author: steven0461 24 March 2009 05:30:56PM 4 points [-]

Indeed. If you claim all the time that things aren't true and yet aren't not true, and that something is one with some other thing, some of the claims are going to resemble actual insights.

If this came from real understanding, why did they single out "the enlightened man" when it applies to everyone?

Comment author: Annoyance 24 March 2009 05:35:49PM 10 points [-]

Because it doesn't apply to everyone.

Normal people have intentions, and try to initiate actions, that are not compatible with the nature of things, and thus are not one with any descriptions of that nature. The enlightened know what the rules are and do not attempt to act in ways not in accordance with them.

Everyone is bound by the laws of nature. The enlightened are not restricted by them.

Comment author: pjeby 24 March 2009 08:18:38PM 5 points [-]

Everyone is bound by the laws of nature. The enlightened are not restricted by them.

An excellent way of putting it! I'm going to have to steal that one. ;-) Is it yours? I see that Google only finds your comment, so how would you like to be attributed?

(The closest phrasing I had to this is, "The only limitations you have, besides those imposed by the laws of physics, are the ones that come from your own mind." Your version is more compact and poetic.)

Comment author: Annoyance 25 March 2009 02:11:26PM 1 point [-]

LM: "The only way a woman could rule in the kingdom of Ch'in. It's my gift to him. He was a vicious tyrant. I'm going to make him the most loved of rulers."

X: "Don't you get sick of him getting the credit for everything that you do?"

LM: "Not at all. As long as good is done."

X: "You write down all that wisdom stuff-- huh?"

LM: "Yes-- in his book."

X: "You give him credit for that, too?"

LM: "This wisdom comes from Heaven. What difference does it make who gets credit for it-- Lao Ma or Lao Tzu?"

  • The Debt
Comment author: Annoyance 24 March 2009 06:21:10PM 1 point [-]

Hey, I don't make the Zen dogma, I just explain how the world looks from that perspective. If you dislike its teachings, that isn't my problem.

Comment author: Nominull 24 March 2009 03:25:16PM 8 points [-]

I dunno, if you believe the wrong answer can turn you into a fox, that might motivate you to find the right answer.

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 02:19:18AM 3 points [-]

Zen is a matter of life and death:

'Kyogen said, "It (Zen) is like a man (monk) hanging by his teeth in a tree over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another man asks him, 'Why did Bodhidharma come to China from the West?' If the man in the tree does not answer, he misses the question, and if he answers, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?" '

Comment author: steven0461 25 March 2009 01:39:14PM 18 points [-]

Zen is like a man hanging by his teeth in a tree over a precipice. Sure, his situation may seem interesting, but his real mistake was further upstream.

Comment author: Nominull 25 March 2009 06:00:51PM 3 points [-]

Learn sign language.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 March 2009 04:59:15AM 5 points [-]

Not answer.

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 03:37:32PM 3 points [-]

Shuzan held out his short staff and said, "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"

Comment author: Pavitra 05 July 2011 06:11:22AM 2 points [-]

I vastly prefer this one, which actually provides an answer to the question ("I refute it thus"):

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: "Who can say what this is without calling its name?"

The chief monk said: "No one can call it a wooden shoe."

Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his shoe and went out.

Hyakujo smiled and said: "The chief monk loses." And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

Comment author: gwern 05 July 2011 02:22:28PM 0 points [-]

If Pavitra had been there, he could have saved the cat.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 April 2009 03:01:42PM 5 points [-]

I say:

"Of this which is unique and unknown, the short staff predicate is true."

Comment author: Annoyance 30 March 2009 04:02:51PM 3 points [-]

If we're going to take the question literally, which is arguably a mistake in itself, responding with "not answer" is clearly wrong.

The man's mouth cannot be opened, but his hands are free. Use sign language to answer the question.

Comment author: gilch 23 April 2016 10:49:24PM *  0 points [-]

First, grasp a branch. Then, ask the other man for help.

Comment author: Alan 25 March 2009 03:09:58AM 7 points [-]

"It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox."

In the autobiography of Master Hakuin, people considered to be possesed by the spirit of a wild fox were thought to exhibit irrational, even erratic behavior, or vice versa. So this seems like a metaphor, but one at odds with standard western interpretations.

Comment author: gwern 12 May 2011 04:04:38PM 2 points [-]

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitsune#Kitsunetsuki

In medicine, kitsunetsuki is an ethnic psychosis unique to Japanese culture. Those who suffer from the condition believe they are possessed by a fox.[36] Symptoms include cravings for rice or sweet red beans, listlessness, restlessness, and aversion to eye contact. Kitsunetsuki is similar to but distinct from clinical lycanthropy.[37]

Comment author: thomblake 24 March 2009 04:50:11PM *  2 points [-]

It really makes you wonder how the hell they got that far while still believing that the wrong answer could turn you into a fox.

If one's conception of 'the law of causation' is constituted partly by the belief that you can turn into a fox, then it will take a while to figure out that you can talk about the law of causation without believing that you can turn into a fox.

EDIT: made context clearer

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 02:07:47AM 3 points [-]

I think you're being a bit harsh (I hope out of ignorance). It is a ridiculous belief, yes, and the Zen teachers were perfectly aware of it. If I may quote from the venerable Wumen who compiled The Gateless Gate, specifically his comments on this koan:

`The enlightened man is not subject.' How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.' How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

Comment author: thomblake 26 March 2009 08:56:58PM 1 point [-]

I edited my comment to point out what I was replying to - I was confused when you said that I was being harsh, when I was merely offering an explanation for EY's observation.

Indeed, I agree that they were aware it's ridiculous. Note that Hyakujo saw an old man, not a fox.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 December 2012 10:56:26PM -1 points [-]

Controlled or not controlled...both are a grievous error. This sounds like a reversal of the standard argument against free will. Determinism or indeterminism...both are errors to a being that can actually decide. But how can we reject 2 logical opposites? Perhaps if every decision (as well as everything probability-based) causes a quantum split...then the overall state of all the worlds is deterministic, but the world I am currently in is indeterministic. The enlightened man (or woman or transgender individual) is subject to neither determinism nor indeterminism...and yet both.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 March 2009 12:56:13AM 0 points [-]

Zen koans always strike me as incomprehensible gibberish... I hate allegory.

Comment author: steven0461 25 March 2009 12:58:31AM 18 points [-]

I recite koans, you assert non-sequiturs, he spouts random BS.

Comment author: thomblake 02 April 2009 03:24:56PM 2 points [-]

If it's really a koan, it should strike you as incomprehensible gibberish. That's a big part of the point. They're things you repeat to get at the immediacy of experience and realize that what you believe to be reality is just a mind-constructed illusion.