Tuesday, February 07, 2006


     The Ten Oxherding Pictures—sometimes called “Ten Bulls”—and their accompanying text are a very old teaching tool in Zen. The images are a series of graphic illustrations that stand for potential stages in Zen development, on the path to realizing one's true nature. They explain a lesson in gaining knowledge or achieving insight. They focus on an ox and a young oxherd.
     The ten oxherding pictures have been rendered in various styles including watercolors, black-brush painting, ceramics, and woodblock prints. As popular as the pictures are, the original author of the series is uncertain. Most of the credit goes to Kaku-an Shi-en, a Chinese Zen master who lived and taught during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279. But during his time Kaku-an mentioned another Zen master called Seikyo who also used this method to portray Zen development. Seikyo depicted the ox as visually fading away until it disappeared entirely. In Kaku-an's version—which I present—all participants remain to the end because Kaku-an felt that awareness, not emptiness, was the goal of Zen.
     Rather than my including the pictures in this blog, which would make it inordinately long, I refer you to the following Web sites where you can view the images.
     We won't quibble about whose rendition of the oxherding pictures is good, better, or best. Nor does it matter in what medium the pictures are executed. As we study the ten pictures let your mind absorb the illustrations and their message, with no pre-set notions or judgments.
     Without giving away the plot I’ll tell you up front the ox represents enlightenment, and the oxherd represents you.
     A contemporary Zen scholar named Urs App mentions that Zen sees the “I” as the very problem. Thus the herder, who has an “I” just as all of us have, searches for what he truly is. The object of the search is represented by an ox. The quest extends from seeing faint traces to the complete overcoming of the problematic “I” to the emergence of nature as it truly is.
     The pictures I usually use in my talks are copies of paintings by Sensei Gyokusei Jikihara (available from Mount Tremper Zen Center). The opening words for each image are my adaptation of a 1966 English translation from the Japanese, mixed in with thoughts of D.T. Suzuki. First I’ll read the relevant excerpt of Kaku-an’s poetic text for each picture, then I’ll give the simplified explanation.
     I suppose that if today the same sort of teaching were used, instead of an ox the vehicle might be a stretch limousine, and instead of an oxherd the seeker might be a female bank president.
     The pictures, in order, are titled:
     — Searching for the ox.
     — Discovering traces of the ox.
     — Seeing the ox.
     — Catching the ox.
     — Taming the ox.
     — Coming home on the ox's back.
     — The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
     — Ox and herder gone.
     — Returning to the source.
  • Entering the marketplace.
As we go on this journey, remember that the oxherd is a metaphor for you. Don’t evaluate the pictures. Don’t analyze the story. Just look and listen.

     Picture Number 1. Searching for the Ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “Pushing aside the weeds of illusion he looks for the ox in the wild. Through swollen rovers and distant mountains his path leads farther and farther. His strength exhausted, he’s in despair. There’s no more place to search. Yet hear that lonely autumn song of a cicada in a maple tree.”
     The animal—signifying one’s inherent Buddha-nature—has never gone away, so why search for it? The herder doesn’t have a close relationship with the ox because he has always been led by societal delusions. In such a life his true home fades, and the various paths that he stumbles along are ever more confusing and confining. Owing to society’s pressures, his mind is fixed on thoughts of achieving gain and he looks at everything in terms of right and wrong. Still, there is something bright and clear that calls to him.

     Picture Number 2. Discovering traces of the ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “By a river among the trees footprints here and there! Wild thickets, weeds…. Did he now just catch a glimpse of it? Deep into the mountains his path leads far astray. Its nose may reach the heavens, yet would it leave no trace?”
     By earnestly looking into the basic concepts of Zen the herder has received a glimmering of insight. He has come upon some evidence, some clues. He sees that the objective world is a reflection of the self. Yet, his mind is confused about truth and is misled by false notions that have been instilled in him since birth.

     Picture Number 3. Seeing the ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “The song of a nightingale, listen! It’s perching on a branch. Warm sunrays and a soothing breeze. Green willows on the bank. Ah, there! No way to overlook its majestic horns and stately head. A challenge for a painter.”
     The herder finds the course of action by what he begins to perceive with his senses. Thus he sees into the origin of all things, and his perceptions are harmonious with all of existence. The course is not only present in some of his activities, it is an integral part of all activities. It’s like oxygen in the air though it isn’t distinguishable as something separate or individual. When his eye is properly directed the herder realizes the Way is nothing other than himself.

     Picture Number 4. Catching the ox.
Kaku-an writes:
“Everything and all he gives, and finally is able to catch the ox. What strength of will, what power. All too tough to shed at once. At times it suddenly struts up, up to higher plains to hide in mist and clouds, and rest in deep ravines.”
The herder has been wandering, lost in the back country, but finally he takes hold of the animal. Still, because the herder feels pressures from the outside world the ox is hard to control. Its wild nature causes it to balk at being subdued. It wants to return to the fields of fresh grasses.

Picture Number 5. Taming the Ox.
Kaku-an writes:
“Not letting go of tether and whip, not even for a moment, he’s careful to not lose his way in the dirt and dust of the world. Well tended and domesticated, the ox grows pure and gentle. Without a chain and bridle it trails its master just so.”
When a human thought occurs, another thought follows, and then another, forming a jumbled sequence of ideas, notions, and opinions. Through enlightenment all judgments and conclusions are clear and become truth. Only when there is confusion is there distortion. We are troubled and encumbered not so much by an objective world as by a self-deceiving mind. The oxherd—who is us—must not let go of the ox’s nose-rope but hold it tightly, not allowing any wavering or irresolution.

Picture Number 6. Coming home on the ox's back.
Kaku-an writes:
“Riding high on the ox, he leisurely turns toward home. The singsong of his flute vanishing in the evening glow. Each beat, each note full of infinite meaning. When one is in tune with the other, no need for chat and blabber.”
The contest is over. Having caught the ox the herder has lost all thoughts of gain and loss. He has no delusions. He hums a tune and sings simple songs. Seated on the animal his eyes are not fixed on the earth. He doesn’t turn his head, and will not be distracted.

Picture Number 7. The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
Kaku-an writes:
“Once astride his ox the herder reaches the mountains and hills of home. No more ox! The herder is serene. Yet, though the sun stands high above, he is still dreaming the dream while whip and tether lie idle in that thatch-roofed hut of his.”
The ox is symbolic. When you realize you don’t need a trap to catch a rabbit or a net to catch a fish but the rabbit or the fish itself, you are awakened. This awakening has always existed. It is you, and you are it.

Picture Number 8. Ox and herder gone.
Kaku-an writes:
“Whip, tether, person, ox: All is empty! Blue sky, all and all around: What is there to convey? How to keep a flake of snow atop a red-hot oven? Get there and you do accord with the founders of our school.”
No longer is there any confusion, only peace and calm. There is not even any notion of holiness. The herder does not speculate on the whereabouts of the Buddha. There is no dualism. There is no “I.”
This illustration is usually regarded as the most significant of the entire series, and some Zen scholars think it should be the final picture. Recall what I said earlier about Kaku-an disagreeing with that notion.
The circle is a popular and powerful symbol in Zen. It signifies no beginning, no ending. When drawn with a brush the circle is the calligraphy for “heart.”
As an interesting aside, the German theologian Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who was considered to be the founder of mysticism in Germany, said “A man shall become truly poor and as free from his creature-will as he was when he was born. . . . He alone has true spiritual poverty who wills nothing, knows nothing, desires nothing.” (From Eckhart as quoted by Inge in Light, Life, and Love.)

Picture Number 9. Returning to the source.
Kaku-an writes:
“Returning to the root and source is such a waste of effort. Much better to turn blind and deaf right at this very moment. Inside his hut he does not see any object, nothing outside. Rivers flow onward by themselves, and blossoms turn crimson like that.”
From the beginning a person has never been truly lost. A person watches the growth of nature while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with it. A person simply doesn’t identify with the changes that go on all around, and at the same time he or she doesn’t feel self-important and superior. Lakes are blue, mountains are gray. Sitting alone, the herder observes changes.

Picture Number 10. Entering the marketplace.
Kaku-an writes:
“Bare-chested and with naked feet he bursts into the market, full of dirt and ashes. His face is one big, wide grin. No need for magic potions from adepts and immortals. He simply lets a withered tree erupt in blazing bloom.”
The herder’s hut is closed, and even the most insightful persons don’t know him. No one is able to see his inner being because he goes his own way without following anyone else. He re-enters the world to join the common people, and they understand there is something different, something special about him.
In the words of Urs App, “Your true self—what you really are without realizing it—is nothing other than that ox and that flower, or your neighbor. Thus the true person isn’t aloof from the world but is right here in the bustle of the marketplace.”


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