Great Master Xu Yun and the Unrivalled Legend of the White Fox
(I have translated into English the original Chinese text entitled ‘Great Master Xu Yun – and the Unrivalled Legend of the White Fox’ (虚云大师和一只白狐的旷世传奇). This charming story involves a tame animal and its apparent embracing of the Buddha’s philosophy. Such stories are common not only in China, but throughout the Buddhist world. When Charles Luk translated master Xu Yun’s biography in the 1960’s, he was working from Cen Xue Lu’s earliest edition. This version of the biography – provided by Xu Yun to Cen Xue Lu – understandably did not include the many hundreds of stories about Xu Yun preserved in other sources. This is one such story. An unspecified commentator has added a paragraph of explanation to the beginning and end of this text – paragraphs that I have retained for their deep wisdom and compassion.)
In reality animals are the friends of human beings. When humans and animals live in harmony with one another the living environment is transformed for the better. Animals can not speak, but they possess their own ability to feel emotion and to express. Many animals are also very considerate and loyal to human beings. There is a well known story about the modern monk Xu Yun and the time that he had a prolonged contact with a white fox.
In the spring of 1936, the Nan Hua Temple (南华寺 – Nan Hua Si) came to the end of its period of non-interaction with the world. At that time the temple was visited by Lin Guo Geng (林国庚), the commander of the Cao Xi (曹溪) garrison of the 16th Army Regiment. He had come to the temple specifically to see master Xu Yun and he brought with him a pet fox. Its coat was silvery-white and very smooth; its muzzle was prominent and its slender tail was fluffy. Everyone liked this fox.
Commander Lin told master Xu Yun the strange story of how he came by the fox. Originally, the animal had been captured by hunters in the Bai Yun Mountain (白云山 – Bai Yun Shan) area of Guangzhou. His friend – Zhao (赵) – had paid 40 Yuan to buy the fox, as he intended to use it to make a medicinal tonic. Zhao was prevented from killing the fox as it looked at him with pleading eyes and continuously bowed its head to the ground. Out of compassion and pity, the fox was placed in a cage and sent to the Guangzhou Zoo. Not long after this, Zhao was falsely accused of a crime and placed in prison. The case was complex and could not be easily settled. However, Zhao’s wife was very good at divination and she consulted an oracle about the situation. Before she could shake the bamboo slips containing the divination wisdom, a single bamboo slip started to vibrate on its own accord. She drew this slip and saw that her husband was imprisoned as a punishment for the imprisonment of the fox. The divination said that the fox should be taken to the Nan Hua Temple and be released by master Xu Yun; only then would her husband be released. After learning this, she immediately arranged for the white fox to be released from Guangzhou Zoo and asked Commander Lin to escort it to the Nan Hua Temple to be released.
Master Xu Yun listened to the story Commander Lin recounted, and then accepted the fox. He transmitted the Triple Gem and the Five Precepts, and released the fox into the local woods. The monks of the temple were instructed to feed the fox every time it came to the temple. After receiving the Triple Gem and the Five Precepts, a strange thing happened; the fox stopped killing and eating meat. Instead, the fox took to eating fruit. Some times, labourers working at the temple would put meat in with the fruit intended for the fox – but as soon as he was aware of it, the fox would spit it out and paw the ground – as if trying to bury it. He would stare angrily at the labourers and run into the woods, not to return.
After this, the fox was chased by the local villagers. It ran up a tree like a monkey and started whining out of grief. One of the monks heard the noise and informed master Xu Yun who immediately went to the tree. As soon as he arrived the fox jumped down and landed in Xu Yun’s outstretched robe. The fox acted like a pet dog who had just found its owner. Xu Yun then took the fox back to the temple. As there was a fear that it might again be hunted, the fox was placed in a large cage to keep it safe. Every day it was allowed out to walk freely, but it never again left the temple grounds, or climbed the trees.
One day, the President of the Guomindang – Jiang Jie Shi (蒋介石) – came to visit master Xu Yun with a large group of people, but when they entered the Cao Xi Gate (曹溪门 – Cao Xi Men) of the temple they came across the fox. One of the group drew a pistol and intended to shoot the fox, but Jiang prevented him from doing so. The fox then led them to the main hall, and then ran to the abbot’s room and hid under the robes of master Xu Yun. When master Xu Yun explained the story behind the fox, Jiang clapped his hands and praised its spirituality!
When master Xu Yun was engaged in long periods of meditation, the fox would sit next to him on his meditation mat. If the fox felt that Xu Yun had been meditating for too long, it would gently begin to stroke his beard in an attempt to get Xu Yun to rest. At such times, Xu Yun would open his eyes and tell the fox to stop being disruptive. The fox would then lie down and be peaceful, no longer causing trouble.
Later, the fox was run-over by a vehicle and suffered terrible injuries. Although its body could still move, it could not stand on its legs. When master Xu Yun saw the fox, it tried to get-up, but could not. Xu Yun knew from the look of the wound that there was no hope. He felt compassion for the fox and wrote:
“This leather bag can no longer stand – become aware of this. Repent past karma and allow it to drop away. Know that an error of thought in the past has created rebirths in many different forms and that evil doing must come to fruition. The karmic fruition that you are experiencing is very bitter, but the debt has now been paid. Become one with the Buddha Mind and your circumstances will quickly change.”
The white fox understood what was said and nodded his head. It cried three times and passed away. Master Xu Yun instructed that the fox be treat as a deceased monk – and the body was placed in a coffin that was buried on Nan Hua Mountain.
Animals not only understand how to survive in the world, but they also know how to understand human sentiments and intentions, trying their best to win humanity’s delight. Their silent language gives great comfort to human beings and therefore, human beings should develop a great compassion toward all animals. Animals should not be killed, but rather released into freedom. Compassion should be extended to all living beings so that harmony can be created and maintained in the world.
'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.' Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra