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Ten Ox-herding Pictures

November 16, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Often it is very difficult, if not impossible, to figure out exactly where you are in your practice.  Part of this has to do with the Soto Zen idea that all realization is instantaneous. And yet it is also clear to anyone who has practiced for a while that things do change little by little.  Suzuki Roshi likened this aspect of the path to walking in a dense fog.  He said that you get wet, little by little—sometimes without noticing—until you become soaking wet.

Here it is important to have a teacher who is at least a little more experienced than you to ascertain where you are and how to take the next step. But there are traditional formulations of the levels of progress on the path.  The most widely known of these are the ten ox-herding pictures. Each illustration is accompanied with a short commentary in verse or prose.  The ox, which was considered sacred in ancient India, symbolizes our original nature.

The original drawings and the verse commentaries that accompany them are attributed to the twelfth century Zen master, Kuo-an Shih-yuan.  Earlier versions of five and eight pictures exist in which the ox becomes progressively whiter , and the last painting is a circle, symbolizing the realization of the interconnectedness of all things.  Kuo-an Shih-yuan believed that the complete Zen life didn’t end with an enlightenment experience.  After such an experience a person must return to the world to share what she has learned.  Beings are numberless and we vow to free them all.

I. Searching for the Ox


Alone in the wilderness, lost in the jungle,

The boy is searching, searching!

The swelling waters, the far-away mountains,

And the unending path;

Exhausted and in despair,

He knows not where to go,

He only hears the evening cicadas

Singing in the maple-woods

The beast has not gone astray.   The boy who has been separated from his original nature through layers of delusion is the one who is lost.   Trapped by his sense of a duality between himself and the ox, he imagines that what he seeks has gone off somewhere in an unimaginable distance of time and space.  His home has receded into the distance and the paths before him seem to go everywhere without direction.   A desire for gain and fear of loss, ideas of right and wrong, shoot up like the flames of a wildfire.

And so the boy begins his search for something that he can’t quite name. If asked, I am sure that he couldn’t tell us what exactly he is looking for.  All he knows is that something in his life is not quite right, something is lacking.  To quote the Bard, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  He has no idea of what is missing or how it got lost or even what it looks like.  At this stage everything is unknown and confused.

The Tibetan master, Chogyam Turngpa put it this way: The inspiration for this first step is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego’s attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.

While the imagery is mythological, and may seem to come from another time and place, the boy’s predicament is familiar to many of us who come to Zen, feeling that something is missing from our lives.  We read books and magazine articles, some written centuries ago and some written by our contemporaries, but we can’t figure what to do next. We really do not know what to do or where to go. We don’t know who to believe.

And so the path begins right now, right here—with a question that may burn like a hot coal that we can’t swallow or spit out.  Can we stay with this question without trying to put out the fire?  No matter what we may find, can we keep on looking?  After all, as Dogen said, Buddhas [must] keep on becoming Buddhas. Is that one of the secrets of the path?   Is it possible to keep our question as an inner guide as we continue?  Is it possible to keep this question until we take our last breath?



From → Zen Buddhism

  1. Buddhas unfold buddhas. 🙂

  2. korinstephen permalink


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