‘Those saying theoretical teachings that mislead others, only, in the beginning, [do not take] much time [to do so]. Their later fruits borne [from negative karma], are however unable to be repaired [quickly].
It is very easy to share Buddhist teachings and practices wrongly, while it is very difficult to make amends for the mistakes made as they can have lasting consequences for those affected.
In the Song Dynasty, Confucian scholars stole Buddhist principles on unchanging [original or Buddha] nature, yet not knowing that this original nature [is to be realised] from phenomenal [or practical] cultivation, with the ground of being well accomplished from the beginning to the end. Therefore, pushing aside [by saying there is] no retribution from [karmic] cause and effect, and [no] cycle of birth and death, resulting in this day’s dying out [or extinction] of moral principles in the ways of the world.
It is important to begin and end with sincere, diligent, regular and down to earth Dharma practice to realise the Dharma fully, while never abandoning the principles of karma and morality.
You, when with Buddhist learning, are inclined to have viewpoints [that are still with defiled outflows of attachment, aversion, delusion, arrogance and doubt]. Regarding others with beginner [spiritual] roots, [if] not first [teaching] phenomenal [or practical] cultivation as practice, yet with the first principle of the [ultimate] truth [of emptiness] as instruction, how can this mistake[‘s gravity] be conceived?
Notes: As we and others are still far from being enlightened, we should not rush to teach others to realise emptiness, without first teaching on basic practices based on understanding karma and living with morality.
[In Chan Master] Baizhang’s [wild fox koan (or public record), a monk’s] wrong answer, with this one phrase of “not fall into cause and effect”, according to the truth, is also not [completely] wrong. [However], with this teaching that was not opportunistically [skilful for the listener to see the appropriate point, it] caused the person to misunderstand [the teaching of karma], then causing [the monk to karmically] fall for five hundred lives [to be] reborn [with a] wild fox’s body.
After Master Baizhang gave a teaching, with the departure of everyone, an old man, who was a fox spirit in disguise remained. When asked who he is, he answered that he was actually a monk in the ancient Kasyapa Buddha’s time, who was practising the Dharma on the same mountain. When a learner asked him, ‘Do great spiritual cultivators still fall into cause and effect?’ (大修行人还落因果否？), he replied, ‘Not fall into cause and effect.’ (不落因果。) Due to this statement, he was reborn for five hundred lives as a fox spirit, unable to be liberated from his form.
He then asked the Master to compassionately guide him to be liberated from his suffering. The Master replied to ask him the same question again. After it was asked, the Master replied, ‘Not ignorant of cause and effect.’ (不昧因果。) Realising this right answer, he prostrated in gratitude, saying that with indebtedness to the Master’s kindness, he will be liberated from his form at the back mountain’s cliff. As he requested a monk’s funeral and burial, the next day, the Master led a great assembly there and found a dead fox, to conduct the rites accordingly.
Great spiritual cultivators, who are already completely liberated, do not still fall into being trapped by cause and effect as they are not ignorant of the workings of cause and effect. However, as beginners are surely still very much ignorant of cause and effect, they surely still fall into cause and effect. Thus should they be mindful of it. If beginners imagine that they can be great spiritual cultivators straightaway with only some theoretical understanding of karma without actual practice that leads to realisation, they might forgo living morally with the precepts as the foundation of spiritual betterment, thus drifting further away from liberation.
As ‘not fall into cause and effect’ was misunderstood to negate the existence of karma, the negative consequences were severe, leading to loss of human rebirth. As ‘not ignorant of cause and effect’ affirms the existence of karma, understanding this that led to liberation from animal rebirth. The wild fox probably represents untamed ignorance mixed with some cunning and presumptuous ‘intelligence’, while animals are predominantly spiritually ignorant. Due to this incident, the term ‘Wild Fox Zen (Chan)’ (野狐禅) was coined to label those who make similar mistakes of assuming theoretical understanding as practical realisation, of teaching and behaving as if one is realised when one is still not, of putting aside cause and effect when still ignorant of it.
The monk was wrong for having taught from the ultimate point of view of emptiness to a beginner, who should have been taught from the relative point of view of (relating morally to that with) forms first. This incident is a grave reminder of how even teaching wrongly by a single word might have drastic karmic consequences for both teachers and students. This is why we have to be very mindful in all manners of our communication, be they about the Dharma or otherwise.
Therefore, the ancients say, that rather to have attachment to existence [or form as big] as [Mount] Sumeru, do not have attachment to emptiness [as small] as a mustard seed.’
As long as not yet enlightened, we should understand in the existence and workings of karma, and make skilful use of forms, including the pure forms in Pure Land (teachings), to guide us to Buddhahood swiftly, instead of being attached to emptiness in the slightest, which will end spiritual progress swiftly. While the defiled forms of this defiled land here correspond to our defiled outflows, the pure forms of Pure Land will only guide us to end all outflows, ultimately guiding us to Buddhahood.
– Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang
(16th reply letter to Layman Xie Huilin)