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Shifting Shape, Shaping Text

Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Koan

Steven Heine

Publication Year: 1999

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-x

This book draws on my fascination with the complex varieties and multiple meanings of the shape-shifting wild fox—a symbol of liminality in East Asian folklore—in order to analyze the theory and practice of Ch’an/Zen Buddhism in its formative period in China and Japan. The book develops a wide range of implications about early Zen by...


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pp. xi-xiii

Part One: Shape-Shifting

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1. Putting the Fox Back in the Fox Kōan

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pp. 3-40

The “wild fox kòan” 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 the Wu-men kuan (J. Mumonkan, 1228), a collection of prose and verse commentary on kòans.

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2. The Kōan’s Multivalent Discursive Structure

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pp. 41-64

Since its initial publication in the early eleventh century, the fox kòan 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. Chûhò...

Part Two: Text-Shaping

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3. Philosophical Paradigm of Paradoxicality

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pp. 67-103

The main philosophical debate is whether the fox k

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4. Deep Faith in Causality

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pp. 105-129

The multilevel ambivalence in Dògen’s writings, which embrace contradictory philosophical interpretations of the fox kòan 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 kòan tradition in the formative Sung Chinese/Kamakura...

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5. Folklore Morphology and the Issue of Repentance

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pp. 131-175


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6. Unconcluding Methodological Reflections

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pp. 177-200

...phy/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 k

Appendix I: Translations of Fox Kōan Commentaries

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pp. 201-215

Appendix II: Translation of “Pai-chang’s Monastic Rules”

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pp. 217-222


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pp. 223-260

List of Sino-Japanese Terms

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pp. 261-267


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pp. 269-289


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pp. 291-295

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864293
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824821500

Publication Year: 1999

OCLC Number: 832620445
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Shifting Shape, Shaping Text

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Subject Headings

  • Karma.
  • Huaihai, 720-814.
  • Zen meditations.
  • Zen Buddhism -- Folklore.
  • Koan.
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