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Seeing the Ox

December 9, 2012

by Stephen Damon



On a yonder branch perches a nightingale

cheerfully singing;

The sun is warm, and a soothing breeze blows,

on the bank the willows are green;

The ox is there all by himself,

Nowhere is he to hide himself;

The splendid head decorated with stately horns—

What painter can reproduce him?

The boy finds the way by the sound he hears; he sees thereby into the origin of things, and all his senses are in harmonious order. In all his activities, it is manifestly present. It is like the salt in water and the glue in color. When the eye is properly directed, he will find that it is no other than himself.

Following the traces, the boy has become more alert to the colors and sounds of the world.  The more awake he becomes the more alive and ordered his senses become.  He can hear the cheerfulness of a nightingale’s song, feel the soothing warmth of the winds, and see the vibrant greens of the willows.  As his mind becomes more awake so do his other senses.  The six senses are no different from the true Source.  We see that in every activity the Source is manifestly present

Listening to a sound, any sound, may bring us to the realization of our original nature. During sesshins, when I have practiced listening to the sounds of the world—whether it is a bird song or the engines of passing cars—I have experienced a letting go of my usual sense of separateness from things.  The sound is no longer “faraway,” no longer “something else.”  It includes everything—including me.  Mumon (1183-1260), the author of Mumonkan, attained great enlightenment as soon as he heard the “boom” of a big drum.  In our story it is the song of the nightingale that brings the boy to the “first stage” of enlightenment in which everything the boy sees and hears is the true self.

His mind can see what is invisible, hear what is silent, and sense the subtlety of air.  Just as the heart sutra praises “wisdom beyond wisdom,” the boy can see beyond seeing, and hear beyond hearing. And so he can find the deepest part of himself—the ox!  According to Rinzai, this part of ourselves encounters the eyes and becomes seeing, encounters the ears and becomes hearing; through the hands, it becomes making something; through the feet, it becomes carrying our body.

It should be noted that only the hind quarters of the ox is seen.  So at this point, the boy has only a partial and provisional experience of his original nature, referred to as kensho.  Although kensho and satori  have similar etymologies and are often used interchangeably, they are different.  Kensho is often spoken of as an initial experience of enlightenment that requires further realization and deepening, and satori is reserved to describe the complete and full enlightenment of the Buddha and ancestors.

At this stage, we may have only a brief glimpse of our original nature, but at least we know from direct experience that it is there. Now we know, not just from hearsay or from reading historical accounts of the masters who have seen it. We are like one who has drunk water and actually experienced himself whether it is cold or warm. (Mumonkan, Case 23) Now we have a deep wish to follow it more closely and become more intimate with it.  Without such an experience it would be highly unlikely for a person to continue much further.

When he sees his original nature, the boy realizes that it has not been hiding.  There is “nowhere to hide himself.” The ox has been waiting for him to find his way through the forest, back to himself.  Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Flemish mystic, put it this way: God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.

But we must be very careful.  We have only seen the tail of the ox. We have just had a “taste” of things as they are.  We must let our experience go and not make too big a deal about it. We may have awakened for a moment or two, but if we pay attention we will see that we go back to sleep, almost immediately, by thinking about what we just experienced. We try to figure out what we have just seen by placing it into the context of our past experiences.  We may even concoct theories and philosophies about seeing the ox.  We need to remember that this is but the third stage of our practice and we need to go on. We may have found “something” but there is more work to be done.  As Dogen says, we need to practice continually.  Buddhas [need to] keep on becoming Buddhas.





From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Dogen is my hero! Please don’t tell me to kill him though! 😉

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