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Shifting Shape, Shaping Text

Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Koan

Steven Heine
Copyright Date: 1999
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  • Book Info
    Shifting Shape, Shaping Text
    Book Description:

    According to the fox koan, the second case in the Wu-men kuan koan collection, Zen master Pai-chang encounters a fox who claims to be a former abbot punished through endless reincarnations for denying the efficacy of karmic causality. In the end he is liberated by Pai-chang's turning word, which asserts the inexorability of cause-and-effect. Most traditional interpretations of the koan focus on the philosophical issue of causality in relation to earlier Buddhist doctrines, such as dependent origination and emptiness. Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto school, devoted two fascicles of the Shobogenzo exclusively to the fox koan. One fascicle supports a paradoxical view of causality and non-causality, the two being "two sides of the same coin"; the second strongly attacks this interpretation and defends a literal reading that asserts causality and denies non-causality. Dogen's apparent change of heart on this topic has inspired scholars of the recent Critical Buddhist methodology to evaluate the merits and weaknesses in Zen's attitude toward ethical issues and social affairs. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text examines the fox koan in relation to philosophical and institutional issues facing the Ch'an/Zen tradition in both Sung China and medieval and contemporary Japan. Steven Heine integrates his own philological analysis of the koan, textual analysis of koan collections and related literary genres in T'ang and Sung China, folklore studies, recent discourse theory, Dogen studies, and research on monastic codes and institutional history to craft an original and compelling work. More specifically, he illuminates a fascinating dimension of the entire Ch'an/Zen tradition as he carefully lays out the philosophical issues in the koan concerning causality/karma and enlightenment, the ethical issues contained therein, the bearing that certain interpretations of causality had on the creation of monastic codes and institutional security in China, the relation between Zen and folk religion as revealed by the koan, and the issue of possible antinomianism in Zen, especially as grappled with by later thinkers such as Dogen and contemporary representatives of Critical Buddhism. Finally he applies theories of "high" and "low" religion and contemporary discourse and in the process rethinks the theories and their applicability across cultures. Far-reaching yet rigorous, Shifting Shape, Shaping Text will not only attract the interest of Ch'an/Zen specialists, but also those studying folklore, popular religion, and issues concerning the nature of discourse and the relation between "high" and "low" religions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6429-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. [Map]
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. Part One: Shape-Shifting

    • 1 Putting the Fox Back in the Fox Kōan
      (pp. 3-40)

      The “wild fox kōan” is one of the most elusive and enigmatic records in the vast repertoire of medieval Ch’an/Zen anecdotes and dialogues. Although it is found in dozens of sources, it is probably best known for its inclusion as the second case in theWu-men kuan(J.Mumonkan, 1228), a collection of prose and verse commentary on kōans. The kōan (C.kung-an) deals with the mysterious presence in thesaṃghaof a wild fox (C.yeh-hu;J.yako) appearing in human form. (See Appendix I for a complete translation and discussion of textual history).¹

      According to the case record,...

    • 2 The Kōanʹs Multivalent Discursive Structure
      (pp. 41-64)

      Since its initial publication in the early eleventh century, the fox kōan has inspired diverse and competing interpretations about its ambiguous message concerning the meaning of causality—a message expressed in the highly suggestive symbolism of a folklore narrative. A leading commentator from the Yüan era, Chung-feng Ming-pen (J. Chūhō Myōhon)—known for providing the classic definition of kōans as “magistrate or public (C.kung;J.) records (;” emulating legal cases argued before a bench—has said that after twenty years of study the fox kōan remained for him an impenetrable mystery.¹ He considered it one...

  7. Part Two: Text-Shaping

    • 3 Philosophical Paradigm of Paradoxicality
      (pp. 67-104)

      The main philosophical debate is whether the fox kōan should be interpreted literally for its affirmation of causality and denial of noncausality or interpreted paradoxically from the standpoint of the unity of causality and noncausality based on the deeper significance of the relation between opposites. The extent of the debate may seem rather surprising given the apparent clarity and simplicity of Pai-chang’s pivot word—pu-mei yin-kuo—but it is generated by the complexity of the case narrative, which falls into two divisions. First is the tale of spirit possession containing the exchange between the fox/monk and the abbot—or between...

    • 4 Deep Faith in Causality
      (pp. 105-130)

      The multilevel ambivalence in Dōgen’s writings, which embrace contradictory philosophical interpretations of the fox kōan as well as a flirtation with and repudiation of animistic beliefs in fox veneration, reveals the powerful effects of the folklore force field affecting the unfolding of the kōan tradition in the formative Sung Chinese/Kamakura Japanese period. In the commentary on the kōan in the early, 75-fascicleShōbōgenzō“Daishugyō” fascicle, which supports an equalization of karmic causality and the transcendence of karma in accord with standard Sung commentaries, Dōgen makes two interpretive maneuvers that are characteristic of his style of reading kōans. First, he argues...

    • 5 Folklore Morphology and the Issue of Repentance
      (pp. 131-176)

      Kōan commentaries generally try to distance themselves from the mythological roots of Zen discourse by defusing, reorienting, or suppressing any focus on the reality or unreality of folk beliefs in favor of the rhetoric of abbreviation and iconoclasm. Yet in many kōans supernatural themes share a discursive arena with morality tale literature—providing a narrative framework and force field that may rise to the surface of expression. The fox kōan is one of numerous examples in theWu-men kuanand other collections in which key aspects of popular religiosity are evident: pilgrimages to cultic sites and shrine worship; iconography and...

    • 6 Unconcluding Methodological Reflections
      (pp. 177-200)

      This chapter reconsiders the methodological implications of interpreting the relation between the paradigms of philosophy/demythology and folklore/mythology in attempting to overcome the hierarchical, two-tiered model of great and little traditions. Our main goal here is not to dispense altogether with the notion of distinct structures as a view that has somehow been superimposed on the kōan tradition by extraneous forces such as modern Western ideologies. Such a move would likely end in distorting rather than appropriating the development of the tradition. Like Buddhism in general, this tradition has consistently demonstrated a discrimination of correct or authentic versus incorrect or inauthentic...

  8. Appendix I: Translations of Fox Kōan Commentaries
    (pp. 201-216)
  9. Appendix II: Translation of ʺPai-changʹs Monastic Rulesʺ
    (pp. 217-222)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 223-260)
  11. List of Sino-Japanese Terms
    (pp. 261-268)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-290)
  13. Index
    (pp. 291-296)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-298)