Skip to content

Ten Oxherding Pictures Continued: Transcending the Ox

February 10, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Riding on the animal, he is at last back in his home,
Where lo! The ox is no more; the man alone sits serenely.
Though the red sun is high up in the sky, he is still quietly dreaming,
Under a straw-thatched roof are his whip and rope idly lying.

The dharmas are one and the ox is symbolic. When you know that what you need is not the snare or set-net but the hare or fish, it is like gold separated from the dross, it is like the moon rising out of the clouds. The one ray of light serene and penetrating shines even before days of creation.

For those of you who have not been following this blog, you should know that I’ve been discussing the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” since November. You can find them all by putting in “ox” in the search box. The oxherding pictures are perhaps the best known formulation of the levels of progress on the Zen path. Each stage is introduced by a painting, a verse, and 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.

We have come a long way since we saw the first traces of our original nature in the midst of our everyday life. As we progressed through the first six stages of our practice we developed a more intimate relationship with our original natures. But we were still in a “relationship,” and there was still more work to be done. No matter where we are in our practice, there will always be more work to be done. As Dogen said, Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas. Enlightenment or nirvana is not the end of our efforts but in a sense it is the true beginning of our practice. Buddha continued to sit after achieving enlightenment. In this sense our sitting practice is a “ritual enactment” of our true natures.

In the last picture we rode the ox home, but the ox was still with us, grazing on the tall grass. That is, we still felt separate from our original nature. We still saw enlightenment as something we needed to attain. We were still deluded into thinking that there was a separation between our practice and enlightenment, symbolized as the herdsman and the ox. We practiced to attain “realization,” or “nirvana” or “enlightenment.”

If you pay careful attention you will see that this way of thinking can be very subtle. I have noticed that when I sit, especially during a sesshin, I am usually trying to “create” something. Sometimes it is trying to create a sense of quiet and sometimes it is trying to figure something out. That is, I tend to sit with a “purpose.” There is, however, a way to just sit, to just see what is going on. In a sense, this kind of sitting is not “karmic,” in that it is not trying to create the causes for anything. Sitting is essentially an expression of the way things are, and is not a way of changing anything.

If we continue sitting in this way we will come to a new stage in our practice where the ox is gone and we are serenely sitting alone, quietly dreaming under a bright red sky. We no longer think that our original nature is somehow external to our lives. We no longer think that we have to meditate in order to achieve realization. We no longer think that we have Buddha nature, we know that we are Buddha nature! We are told that the Dharma is one, that there is no two-ness, but there is also no one-ness. In the deepest sense, there is no “ness” or quality or condition at all. The dharma is unlimited and empty.

We are told that a trap is no longer needed when a rabbit has been caught, and a net becomes useless when a fish has been snared. Like gold which has been separated from dross, like the moon which has broken through the clouds, one ray of luminous light shines eternally. The disappearance of the obscuring cloud, doesn’t create the moon, but only reveals it. Our sitting does not create anything but only reveals what always has been.

When our story began, the ox was gone and we were looking for it because we felt that something was missing. Now, the ox is gone again, but we are no longer looking for it because we know that it has never really been lost. It is we who have been lost, separated from our true selves. We return to the beginning of our story but with a much deeper understanding of things. Our practice is not about going anywhere. There is really no place to go. To quote Gertrude Stein, “there is no there, there.” Our practice is about coming back to where we started, but with a new understanding.

We no longer see a duality between our everyday lives and enlightenment. We see that there is no distinction between samsara and nirvana. And so we sit outside our thatched roof hut and spontaneously fall to our knees with our hands in gassho. We put our hands together as a way of acknowledging the “this is so” of our lives. Sometimes we bow at specific times and to specific things, but sometimes we gassho spontaneously as a wholehearted acknowledgement of life as it is. We have come a long way since first seeing the traces of our original nature, but we still have a lingering sense of self-consciousness. We still are attached to the phenomenal expression of our true nature. The person still remains (zainin).

Yamada Roshi has expressed his own experience of this stage: “In terms of my own experience, for about a week after my enlightenment it seemed as if my whole body was trembling. And like a fish put in to the water to swim, I was able to live without any hindrance. I felt very free and happy. However, that did not continue long. After about 10 days or a month, the self appeared again. It was not so much the consciousness of the egoistic possessive ego, but rather the consciousness of the self. You are conscious of the self. That remains.”

We are getting closer to the source, but there is still more work to be done.


From → Zen Buddhism

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: