Skip to content

Ox and Self Transcended

February 16, 2013

by Stephen Damon


All is empty—the whip, the rope, the man, and the ox:
Who can ever survey the vastness of heaven?
Over the furnace burning ablaze, not a flake of snow can fall:
When this state of things obtains, manifest is the spirit of the ancient master.

The Ox and the man are both gone out of sight. All confusion is set aside, and serenity alone prevails; even the idea of holiness does not obtain. He does not linger about where the Buddha is, and as to where there is no Buddha he speedily passes by. When there exists no form of dualism, even a thousand-eyed one fails to detect a loop-hole. A holiness before which birds offer flowers is but a farce.

Although this painting is referred to as the stage in which the ox and the herdsman have been transcended or forgotten, it’s more radical than that; everything has been transcended and forgotten. The painting has no trees, tall grasses, or mountains. To paraphrase a few lines form case 27 in the Mumonkan, there is no mind, no Buddha, no-thing. All we see is an empty background with a circle or enso in the middle.

The enso was first used by Chan masters of the Tang Dynasty as a symbol of perfection. Over the years it has been interpreted to mean many things including infinity, the universe, the endless circle of birth and death, and form and emptiness. Often it represents the full moon, which is a symbol for enlightenment. In this painting the enso is closed, representing the perfection and totality of experience. In other representations, the enso has a small gap or opening, suggesting the imperfection found in all things.

Often an enso is an expression of the level of realization of the Zen practitioner, but at other times it is painted to teach a student about a particular aspect of Zen practice. Robert Aitken said that “Zen teachers like to draw circles. Sometimes they draw them around from right to left, sometimes around from left to right… The circle that goes around from right to left — against the path of the sun on the sundial — represents the hard way of practice before any glimmer of understanding appears. When it goes around from left to right, following the path of the sun, it represents the easier way of practice after a glimmer opens the Way. But both before and after the glimmer, the practice requires investment and conscientious diligence.”

In our painting, the enso expresses the stage of our practice when we experience the limitless emptiness of reality. At this stage a person does not say, “I am enlightened,” because there is no “I.” Also, “enlightenment” is indistinguishable from everything else, because literally there is no “everything else.” As the saying goes, Nirvana is Samsara. Dogen called this stage the complete falling away of body and mind. You have forgotten yourself, you have forgotten all others, you have forgotten everything; there is only one round circle without any substance whatsoever.

In order to reach this stage, it is of crucial importance that “you do not linger where there are buddhas, and you pass quickly through where there aren’t any buddhas.” To “linger where there are buddhas” means to idle our time away with concepts such as “buddhas,” “enlightenment,” that keep us believing in duality. “Where there aren’t any buddhas” means a level of mind where we do not distinguish and grasp onto higher states of consciousness. There is only vast, limitless emptiness. But even here we must be careful not to hold onto our experience. We need to keep on passing through our lives, quickly and effortlessly, without designations, concepts, and habits of mind.

At this stage we manifest the spirit of the ancient master. Here, I am reminded of Soanka’s “Song of the Grass Hut,” in which he says that we need to meet our ancestral teachers and become familiar with their instructions. If we continue, Soanka says that the Original Master will be present. But there is still more work to be done before we can let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.


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: