Karma must be exhausted. That’s much of what is happening in practice and Zen training. That’s why the precepts are so important. If we’re trying to free ourselves on the cushion while sitting zazen, and then we get up and leave a wake of misery and suffering in our lives, it’s just not going to work. We have to see into our own streams of causation and bring those actions into accord with truth and wisdom. Yet while we practice, the wheels of our habitual patterns are still turning. Some of them have a great deal of momentum, so even when we stop actively kicking the wheel to keep it going, it turns. The old man had to live five hundred years as a fox, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter what he did as a fox. It’s because of how he lived as a fox that he was able to ask this question and be released.


Photo by Gregory J. Smith


The verse continues, ‘Not falling,’ ‘not blind,’ they haggle. The footnote says. “Stupid slobbering hasn’t stopped.” As before, entering a nest of complications. Ah, ha-ha! He asks, “Understand?” If you are clear and free there’s no objection to my babble. The spirit songs and shrine dances spontaneously form a harmony—clapping in the intervals, singing ‘li-la.’ What is he talking about? There’s a realm that’s free of right and wrong and yet moves in perfect accord with right and wrong without conflict. Buddhism has never promoted not caring or not responding to suffering, being above it all, ignoring or negating injustice. “It doesn’t exist, it’s empty”—this is not a Buddhist teaching. Buddhism has always taught to be concerned, to enter into the “nest of complications” which is our world. Within the world of injustice, to negate or ignore injustice is to perpetuate it. To not take responsibility is to attempt to abdicate what cannot be abdicated. But how do we navigate the immense complexities of our world, let alone our own internal—and complex—system? By realizing it’s the same system. There’s only one universe, only one body. It takes different forms, but it’s one body. To understand karma as non-dual reality is to experience and meet the real world in real time on real terms. Not our terms, but the way it actually is. When we drop away the attachment to, and belief in, a separate self, then the spirit songs and shrine dances spontaneously form a harmony. Where is the conflict?

How do we put an end to the turmoil? When there’s no longer conflict in the heart. When the heart is at peace, the world is at peace. When the mind is in turmoil, the world is in turmoil. The world that we see when we look around is the world that we see when we look inside. That’s why the Buddha said to sit, to turn inside, to ask the essential questions, to do the essential work. It’s there that we understand how to live in this world and how to carry freely that fox drool that’s constantly dribbling down our chins. That’s how the old man lived five hundred happy, blessed lives as a fox.

Nagarjuna said, “Because all phenomena, all things are of the nature of emptiness, everything is possible.” Everything is possible. That is the unremitting, persevering, joyful spirit of the bodhisattva

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot and resident teacher of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.