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Catching the Ox

December 25, 2012


by Stephen Damon

With the energy of his whole being, the boy has at last taken hold of the ox:
But how wild his will, how ungovernable his power!
At times he struts up a plateau,
When lo! He is lost again in a misty impenetrable mountain-pass.

Long lost in the wilderness, the boy has at last found the ox and his hands are on him. But,owing to the overwhelming pressure of the outside world, the ox is hard to keep under control. He constantly longs for the sweet-scented field. The wild nature is still unruly, and altogether refuses to be broken. If the oxherd wishes to see the ox completely in harmony with himself, he has surely to use the whip freely.

If we want to make contact with our original nature we need to practice with the energy of our whole being. Dogen put it this way in Bendowa: we need to display the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind. We need to harmonize our thoughts, feelings, and body. Our practice must include the totality of ourselves, with nothing left over. If we do not engage our whole being, the ox will break away from our grasp.

This stage of our practice is about verifying and clarifying the discovery of our original nature. We have glimpsed our tue nature, but if we slacken our effort, thinking that this is already the highest attainment, the ox will disappear from sight again. Thus, it is vitally important to continue practice more and more vigorously, to remove all duality, all delusion. The boy must work hard to overcome his bad habits of the past developed through the greed, hate, and delusion that have given rise to all of his afflictions. And this practice will never end. Enlightenment is not a fixed state as much as it is an ongoing activity. As Dogen constantly reminds us, Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas.

At this stage, the boy is still living dualistically. He, as the subject, is struggling with an object, his original nature. The ox is much stronger and much more alive than the young boy. But he refuses to give up. He lassos the ox with a rope, with the discipline of his Zen practice. His practice, our practice, is a struggle to make contact, and stay in contact, with the deepest part of ourselves. The boy’s practice has connected him to his original nature, but the connection is still tentative, and he is not yet able to live in harmony with it.

It is not so much that the ox has not yet been tamed as it is that the boy is not “wild” enough to be in harmony with him. The boy will have to learn to leave his home for the sweet-scented grasses surrounding the ox. For now, he is still constrained by the conventions of his ordinary life that existed before he started following the traces of another kind of life. Even if we are householders, we all need to leave the comfort of our homes, the comfort of our conventional views of things, if we want to catch the ox.

Thinking about this story I returned to the familiar story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis (32:23-25). I remember the awe I felt when I first heard that story in Hebrew school when I was a young boy. The thought of an ordinary man wrestling with God stretched my imagination into another world that was invisible to me. And yet the story made “sense” to me. In an odd way I felt that I too had been struggling with something greater than myself that I could not name. I have kept that feeling with me throughout my life. This struggle has intensified as I have gotten more involved in my Zen practice. Although I have learned to name that “something” as Buddha nature, or original nature, or describe it as my original face, it has remained unknown to me. Before I started following the traces of myself, before I took my seat in a zendo, I thought a spiritual practice would give me answers, but after years of sitting I have come to realize that my practice is to preserve the “unknownness” of myself.


From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Wonderful! Thank you

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