In another version of this koan that appears in the Gateless Gate, the story continues. The old man said to Baizhang, “I dare to ask a favor of you. Would you please bury the fox body as you would a monk?” Baizhang said he would.
When the old man left, Baizhang called the sangha together and said, “Prepare for a funeral.” Everybody was confused because there was nobody in the infirmary. Whose funeral was it? Baizhang led the community out to a cave on the mountain. Disappearing into the cave, he came out with a dead fox, and then proceeded to bury and offer it the liturgy for a deceased monk. This no doubt created a stir within the sangha. That night Baizhang told the story of what had happened. His main disciple, Huangbo, said, “I have a question. The old man failed to give the correct turning word and was made to live five hundred years as a fox. But if he had answered correctly, what would have happened?” Baizhang replied, “Come a little closer, and I’ll tell you.” As Huangbo approached him, Huangbo reached out and slapped Baizhang. Baizhang laughed heartily, clapping his hands and said, “I thought the foreigner’s beard was red, but I see it is a foreigner with a red beard.” Another translation is, ”I knew foxes’ beards were red—here’s another red-bearded fox.”
What is going on here? According to Buddhist teaching, the old man answered correctly. An enlightened being does not fall into causation. He or she is released from the endless cycle of birth and death, and thus is free of all karma. Then why was this former abbot made to live five hundred years as a fox? Nagarjuna said, “All phenomena are dependently arising. Thus all phenomena are empty.” Nothing in the entire universe arises on its own; everything appears as a consequence of a complex web of interdependence. Nothing exists inherently, therefore, everything is empty.
The old master said that an enlightened being does not fall into causation, and he fell into a fox body for five hundred lives. If he gave the correct answer, why was he made to live as a fox? If it’s not true, then why does Buddhism teach this? It would mean that awakening does not free one from the endless cycle of birth and death. The footnote to the question, “Does an enlightened being fall into causation?” says, “Just do good, don’t ask about the road ahead.” This is a nanto koan, in part, because it’s so easy to fall into intellectual interpretations about its meaning and to just stand back and speculate about “the road ahead.”
Buddhism stresses the importance of understanding karma so we don’t create unnecessary troubles for ourselves and others. If we act in a self-centered way, out of hatred or selfishness, then we create karma that is negative for oursleves and others. Karma itself is not a system of punishment and reward. So was this old man, who was made to live five hundred years as a fox, being punished? Who would be the judge and jury, doling out punishment? That doesn’t exist.