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Herding the Ox

January 4, 2013


by Stephen Damon

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

When one thought arises, another thought follows. When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true. Through delusion, one makes everything untrue. Delusion is not caused by objectivity; it is the result of subjectivity.
Hold the nose-ring tight and do not allow even a doubt.

The fifth picture shows that our practice can overcome the bad habits of previous conditioning and bring us more into accord with the true nature of reality. Although discipline is still needed because the old mental habits still have power, living in greater awareness of reality gives us the energy and direction to live more fully. Our realtionship with the ox is becoming more intimate and we now are going in the same direction. But this is just the beginning.

In another translation we  are warned to hold the nose string tight and allow no vacillation. We are still being pulled in many directions and we need to hold tight to the reigns of our practice. At this stage we still imagine that the bull has to be tamed.  We still have the delusion of the seaparation of our ordinary self from our original self. We have made progress but there is still more work to be done.  

Our thoughts about training a wild animal come one after another in an automatic succession like an unwinding spool of tape.  One translation of the commentary says that an endless train of thoughts is awakened. These thoughts are deluded and give us a false sense of ourselves and the world.  We may view the world as unstable and threatening, we may view the ox as wild and needing to be tamed, but it is we who are the problem.  We still experience a duality between ourselves and the world.

We still think that there is a separation between us and the ox, between a subject and an object. While we are still ruled by the delusions of our sense of duality, we begin to have a greater awareness of the way things are. Eventually, we are enightened and our thoughts change.  When the first thought springs from enlightenment, all subsequent thoughts are true.  

Eventually we will see how deep our confusion goes.  We will see that to think of a “true self” is also a delusion.  In reality there is “not one” and “not two.” First, we have to get beyond the duality and see that we are not really separate from our true nature.  Then we have to see that to call this true nature anything, even Buddha nature, is to miss the point.  There is really nothing to point to.  But we have a long way to go before we have this experience.  We need to continue our practice.  We still need the whip and rope.  But soon that will change.

The poet and singer songwriter, Leonard Cohen put it this way in his song, “Ballad of the Absent Mare,”

…So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night…



From → Zen Buddhism

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