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The Wild Fox Koan

Hyakujo was Abbott of the Mountain Monastery. On weekday afternoons he would give a short talk in the lecture hall to an assembly of monks along with anyone else who wished to listen. For several days Hyakujo noticed an old man sitting quietly at the back of the hall. One day after the lecture the old man stayed. Bowing, he approached the front of the hall and asked to speak with Hyakujo.

He was summoned to the front. And leaning into Hyakujo's ear he whispered: “I am not really an old man," he said. "I am a fox. In a past world system I was the Abbott of this Mountain Monastery and someone asked me, ‘Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?’ I answered ‘No.’ For that answer I was condemned to the body of a fox for these past 500 lifetimes. Can you give me a turning word to release me?”

Hyakujo said: “Ask your question again.” The fox-man said, “Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?” Hyakujo replied, “An enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect.” On hearing this, the old man was released from his fox body.

"I am free," he announced, paying homage with a deep bow. "I am no longer a fox. But I have to leave my body in my home on the other side of the mountain. Would you give me a monk's funeral?" Hyakujo agreed and the old man disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare for the funeral of a monk. But no one had been sick in the infirmary and so the monks really wondered about this unusual development and what the Master was thinking. After dinner Hyakujo led the monks, 76 of them in a single line, out of the Mountain Monastery and around the mountain. He led them to a cave and with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox. And they then performed a ceremony of cremation, fit for a monk.

That evening, with all returned to the Mountain Monastery, Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told them this story about the old man, the fox, and the law of causation.

Obaku, on hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: "OK I understand that a long time ago because the former Abbott gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for 500 rebirths. But if I was to ask the current Abbott the same question - and we know that and he always gives the right answer - what will become of him?"

Hyakujo said: "Come up here. Very close. And I will tell you."

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

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed merrily at the discernment. "I'd heard that Persians have red beards," he said, "And now I've met a Persian with a red beard."


Commentary: I love the Wild Fox Koan. My intuitive take is that the lesson is meant to help us focus on the intentions that underpin our actions. We can, as it were, act our way to right thinking, but we cannot think our way to right action. Everyone is bound by the laws of nature. And while the "enlightened" are not restricted by them they, moreso than others, must be mindful of the source from which their actions arise and act accordingly. This is well expressed by Cuu Chi, an 11th C Vietnamese monk of the Vo Ngon Thong sect. (We like to think his longform name is Cuu Chi Cuu.) He said: "True and false, merit and sin, are illusory images. So is the law of cause and effect. As long as your activity is based on conceptual discrimination it is not free. The free person sees all because he knows that there is nothing to be seen. He perceives all, not being deceived by concepts. When he looks at things, he sees their true nature. When he perceives things, he penetrates the nature of interbeing. So while living in the world he possesses the secret of the arising and manifestation of phenomena. This is the only way to arrive at awakening ..." So, we are masters of ourselves, even when living in the world of conditioned things. If, as Allan Marett says, realisation of the empty one world ('enlightenment' as it is sometimes called) means "seeing into the insubstantiality of all things and the boundlessness of Buddha nature" then we would wish to avoid being careless about the relative world - the world in which karma operates - as such carelessness invariably releases manifold suffering.


Photo Credits: Wild Fox ~ Dylan Roberts | Happy Stone ~ David Roberts


Remembering John Pritchard


I don’t remember grandmother Maggie mentioning her brother John Pritchard.

But it seems fitting to remember him now since it is pretty much exactly 100 years ago that he was killed in the Battle of Bourlon Wood, near Cambrai in France.

Private J. O. Pritchard, DCM, No. 2361, served in the 1st Battalion The Welsh Guards. On the day he was killed, November 28, 1917, his unit was expecting an enemy counter attack near the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame along the Hindenberg Line.

The previous day, November 27th, it snowed. And on the 28th the enemy rained down 16,000 rounds of high explosive shells and gas on British positions. “The Guards suffered enormous losses as they advanced against enfilading fire from La Folie wood and became embroiled in house to house fighting,” said one witness account. “The situation was intolerable and by 1300 hours it was over. Despite great courage and tenacity the Guardsmen had been overwhelmed by an entrenched enemy in superior numbers.”

John was born in Rhosgadfan Wales on September 19, 1896. He enlisted at Liverpool on 10th November 1915 and gave his occupation as a Carter. The Welsh Guards were newly formed that year, the fifth foot guard regiment following the Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scottish and Irish Guards.

Almost 4,000 Welsh Guards saw action in France and Flanders during the Great War and more than 850 died. Twenty two of them, including our Great-Uncle John, were awarded the DCM or Distinguished Conduct Medal. This award was established in 1854 by Queen Victoria as a decoration for gallantry in the field by other ranks of the British Army. It is the oldest British award for gallantry and was a second level military decoration after the Victoria Cross, until it was discontinued in 1993.

There must be a market for war memorabilia, which is why a bronze memorial plaque dedicated to John by our great-grandparents Lewis and Mary-Ann Pritchard, recently was auctioned in the UK by Laidlaw Auctioneers. The insert card was later again auctioned on eBay, but our family managed to repatriate it from the seller and the card is now held by my cousin Jill in Caernarfon. In Welsh, it says “In Loving Memory of Our Beloved Son …” And it goes on to say that John was wounded at The Somme but returned to action before being wounded again at Ypres where he was awarded the DCM. Following this second recovery from battle wounds he was once more returned to action when he was Killed in Action November 28, 1917 at Bourlon Wood.

'A nasty adventure'

The military hospital records show he was wounded the first time just prior to his 20th birthday on 10th September 1916 during the Battle of Ginchy (The Somme) with gunshot wounds to his left arm and buttocks. After recovering, John rejoined his unit to fight in Flanders at the Battle of Passchendaele (also known at the Third Battle of Ypres). John was given the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions on the 19th July 1917 during this battle. In the History of the Welsh Guards by C. H. Dudley Ward there is a paragraph summarizing his actions that day in Flanders: “The battalion took over the front line by Boesinghe Chateau, the line they would attack from. The Prince of Wales and Gen. Gaythorne Hardy visited the battalion in this line. The shelling all the time was heavy.  Pte. 2,361 J. 0. Pritchard had a nasty adventure during the relief on the 19th. The enemy shelling had been continuous and severe, with frequent short, crashing barrages on all approaches to the line. Pritchard was to act as guide to one of the relieving platoons, and had to meet it at a point some two miles away. On his way to the rendezvous he was wounded in fifteen places, but he completed his task and fainted as he led the platoon into the front line. He had walked three miles from the time he was hit, and had to lead the platoon through one of the enemy crashing barrages while passing Boesinghe Chateau. A fine example of endurance. “

The citation for his DCM posted in the London Gazette on 17th September 1917 said: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in guiding a platoon of a relieving battalion to the front line, through a very heavy barrage, although wounded in 15 different places early during the operation.  He covered in all a distance of over three miles, and it was entirely due to his pluck and determination that a large section of the front line was relieved.  He refused to have his wounds attended until he had carried out his duty, after which he was carried back to the dressing station on a stretcher.”

Less than two months later John was back in action at Bourlon Wood in the Battle of Cambrai. This was a very costly battle. There were nearly 100,000 men on both sides who shed blood on this patch of northern France between November 20th and December 9th, 1917.

John Owen Pritchard’s sacrifice is commemorated, along with 7,000 others at the Cambrai Memorial, panel 3. He was just 21. And we remember him.

(Photo Credit: British troops near Ginchy, September 1916 - Imperial War Museum)


Post-Truth News


 We stand in awe at the power of the crowd - the phenomenon of assembly and disassembly, of unification and fracture - the power of the crowd in the digital space and elsewhere, to come together and to unleash itself for better or worse, good or ill.

We've reached the point where a seemingly evolved western democratic culture has embraced a pathology of derangement so severe that politics no longer functions at the level of rational discourse.  There is a crisis of credibility and integrity. Contributing to this trouble is the fact that a previous emphasis on fact-finding and accuracy in the news media has been usurped by millions of content producers churning out free-floating opinion. The result is that truthfulness has been upended by puffed-up histrionics, fear-stoking, spin and pants-on-fire lies. You could say truth has been trumped.

It is amazing to me how ubiquitous is today's news and how everyone is a publisher.
The theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested decades ago that “we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning."

Our shortened attention span and addiction to the novelty of the next digital stimulus leaves us open to manipulators who exploit the fissures of division between groups. Such a millieu provides a more than sufficient opportunity for disinformation: "You are FAKE NEWS!"

It also opens the door for any opinion to hold sway over the crowd, no matter how dangerous or poorly formed. Everyone can find their personal truths reflected in the iridescent patina of the web. The internet is a filter bubble. It is an echo chamber. It's is a personalized algorithm that feeds on itself and we are seduced by the glitter of our own digitized universe.

This disruption and exploitation was articulated by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci who said in his prison diaries: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

It's easy to be smug, here in Canada. We should not be. Bend low your ear to the rumblings: hear the long-simmering cri de coeur rise up from both right and left. Not just a few restless voices are emboldened as once-firm bedrock shifts.

Looking to our neighbours to the south, we hope it all ends OK. It's sometimes tempting to look away and try to not watch. But then, like that car crash in front of your house - you can't avert your gaze. It's a bit like the cavity in your tooth. It's painful to stick your tongue in there. But you can't stop sticking your tongue in there.

As Andrew Sullivan observes, this inability to look away from the crisis, to detach from the emergency, is one of the proofs that autocrac rule is gnawing at the very heart of western democratic institutions and values: "One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all ... because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times." How exquisitely ironic it is, then, that in a time of diminished confidence in news media that an anxious public turns to this very news media for information, a media which is, itself, also diminished, untrustworthy and unhinged.

This is particularly dangerous in the age of personality driven politics. And so what are we to make of this figure who occupies the centre of the cyclone to the south of us, from which we cannot look away? There are those who dispute it, but watching him, my own unqualified diagnosis would be narcissistic personality disorder triggered by low self-esteem. This can be measured by micrometer - you can gauge the thinness of the skin. That's because for the narcissist, like the Sultan of Delhi, there is no real communion with others. The same psychosis applies to the Jihadi narcissists who declare war in the name of God.

Elias Canetti describes the ascendancy of the manipulative power figure in his book Crowds and Power, as well as the psychosis itself. It is the seeker chasing glorification of his own Name: "Names collect their own crowds ... The crowd which the seeker after fame envisages consists of shadows, that is, of creatures who do not even have to be alive as long as they are capable of one thing, which is to repeat his name."

Friends, it all appears to be unfolding in the manner of a horses ass no matter which way you look at it. The wild ride is underway. So we are keeping the internet domain name Trump.Rodeo which has been put on a loop to here until a future utility for it unfolds.

(Image - After Amano - Digitized watercolour and ink on paper - David Roberts)












Zen Xmas Blues

Took the Christmas tree to the recycling depot today and had a hard time parting with it.

It was just your typical Fraser fir from the supermarket, where danger lurks for Christmas tree seekers. You never know what you've got until it thaws. But we were lucky. This tree was verdant and fragrant, one of those lavishly fulsome conifers from the balsam family in contrast to the scrawny 'Charlie Brown' style of tree we've routinely watched unfold in the living room in Christmas's past. They are stunning too, in their own way of course. But someone remarked that this one was the best Christmas tree we'd ever had. Who could argue? Almost everyone commented on how spectacular and luminous it was.

So it was hard to strip it of its seasonal decor and then unceremoniously plop it on the snow-filled bed of the pick-up truck for a sordid ride to the recycle dump. I felt that it deserved a better fate and so the whole thing made me feel a bit sad.

But on the journey I kept telling myself that the tree had admirably fulfilled its temporary purpose among us. I was reminded that nothing lasts forever. Nothing is permanent. This is the very heart of Mahayana - that all suffering flows from habitual attachment to things that are impermanent. And if we must cleave to something, then let us cleave to nothing. And having embraced nothing, even this, one day soon, we must eventually release.

All this likely came to mind because I have two books on Zen on the go, along with some essays on Zen. And it seems that almost every year at Christmas, for no real reason, some of my attention turns to Zen.
Indeed, though I am far from being a Zen-man, sometimes I'm compelled to recycle this stuff.
And rather than be sad about my culpability in the fate of this tree, I decided to say good-bye with admiration and happiness - acknowledging its' impermanence while reflecting on my own. This is today's little lesson and brings to mind the following aphorism by the Zen master Hyakujo. Hyakujo would offer lectures to the novice monks in his monastery. For several days he noticed there had been an old man standing in the back of the lecture hall. One day after the lecture the old man asked if he might speak with Hyakujo and the master had him brought up for a private meeting. The old man said: "I am not really an old man. I am a fox. In a prior world structure I was the abbot of this monastery and someone asked me, 'Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?' And I said 'No'. And for that answer I was condemned to live in this body of a fox for the past 500 lifetimes. Can you give me a turning word to release me from this fox-body?'" Hyakujo said: "Ask your question again." The fox-man said: "Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?" Hyakujo said: "An enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect." On hearing this, the old man was released from his fox-body.
So far in this New Year I have tried to peer a bit more clearly into things. By admiring the noble purpose of a really great Christmas tree, for example. Similarly, if I am perturbed by our consumerist, throw-away society, or by the question of whether one should have a 'real' living Xmas tree at all, I am consoled to know that this living thing is subject to the condition of impermanence by virtue of its arising from a cone and by the cone arising from a tree and going back generations of cones and trees seeing that it was conditioned by having come from a single undivided prokaryotic cell. And regardless of whether I am, for the moment, perturbed or consoled, there is an old Zen story that illustrates how we might avoid getting too caught up in our thoughts: A monk asked a Zen master: 'What shall we do when the 100, the 1000 and the 10,000 things come towards us all at once?' The teacher replies: 'Just don't try to control them.'
For just a fleeting moment then, for just 21 days, our little living tree gave as much pleasure as it possibly could squeeze from itself, standing so radiantly among us. In a twinkling you could say this humble tree served up its' own Buddha-nature, sharing its' most intimate self so perfectly and brilliantly. All we can do is stand in awe and toss it on the pile of soon-to-be wood chips and sawdust. Thank-you. Well played. Nothing more to be said or done.
(Top: watercolour & India Ink illustration Zen Christmas Blues, by David Roberts.)









the New Year I predict
will unfold in the shape of far away thunderclaps
and in the daylight four leaf clovers
will dislodge their roots from the ground.
who will be the first to lick the creamsicle thighs
of the calendar girl
and be dragooned to the days of Saigon self-immolation
where the coolest breeze reverberates across an empty mountain
arousing the sleepy watchman
who washes his hands and trots out the dogs of peace
to howl their lonely chorus.