The Famous Ten OX-HERDING Pictures

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In the 18th (Buddhist) century (12th by western calendars), a Chinese Ch'an (Zen) master (Japanese: Kukuan) painted ten pictures illustrating the search for an ox, an allegory for the search of our true nature. These pictures and the comments on them, in prose and rhyme, have been repeatedly redone through the centuries; and, with "koans" ***hyperlink (see preceding section) widely employed, particularly by the Lin-chi (Rinzai) school (my own lineage).

Enlightenment, the realization of one's true nature in an instant (satori) is the objective of Buddhist practice. Since the victory of Hui Neng's southern school, all Chinese schools of Ch'an have accepted the doctrine of instantaneous enlightenment. Although satori is instantaneous, the practice which precipitates it may be experienced and understood as occurring in a series of stages.

The ox-herding pictures are an attempt to aid the progress toward enlightenment by exemplifying certain of these "steps". Through their comments succeeding generations of Ch'an masters have assisted their disciples and demonstrated their understanding. It is with this intention that I have added my own.

Although these pictures are often explained as illustrating the search for one's true nature, or the accomplishment of a perfect mastery of self, this is far from correct because neither theory can explain all ten pictures. Although one may think in terms of searching for his true nature, it would be like searching for your hat on your head, or your glasses on your nose, or to mount a donkey to go to search for the donkey. Although it is clear that the ox is the symbol of our true Buddha-nature; the boy, ourselves in search of that nature; and the rope and the whip the means we (by error) believe necessary because we (incorrectly) believe we are separated from it. We fail to realize that the ox has never been lost!

There are at least five other famous illustrations of this allegory; each with their commentaries in rhyme and prose, in the Zen traditions (Lin-chi and Cao Dong Japanese: Rinzai and Soto). They also have their equivalent in the elephant training pictures of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the horse training pictures of Taoism. Nevertheless, this metaphor was already particularly well developed in these two Zen schools from the seventh century. The pictures themselves and their commentaries, dividing the training into phases were added three or four centuries later.

The essential point is that one doesn't obtain enlightenment by pursuing it elsewhere, but by discovering it within oneself. Whether this discovery takes place gradually or suddenly was illustrated by the famous poems of Shen Xiu (gradualist) and Hai Neng (sudden), the Sangha finally favoring the latter.

All of the illustrations and explanations of these pictures point to the same basic truth. Therefore to understand one series is to understand them all. So I will leave the others to the endless and petty debates of scholars who mistake the pointing finger for the moon it is indicating. (To mistake the words of the teaching for that which is being taught.)

Despite the long tradition of use in the two principal schools of Ch'an, it may be argued that the ox-herding pictures are inappropriate for other than novices. The commentators have pointed out, from the first, the errors they may inspire. However, keeping these pitfalls in mind, even advanced practitioners may discover certain insights in contemplating them. My commentaries are intended for both categories of students.

Finally, one may legitimately doubt whether anything new may be added to the volumes of commentaries already consecrated to these pictures. My justification is that in the middle of the 26th century of the Buddhist Epoque, the world has changed so much and so rapidly that a new look at this ancient aid on the Tao (way) to enlightenment is indicated. It is for the reader to judge if I am right.

My commentaries proceed in two phases, first a critic of previous comments (those appearing in the below cited book) and secondly my own view is added in conclusion.

The pictures shown are those of the Kyoto woodblock artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki. They are taken from Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo.

Here are my commentaries.


The Search for the Bull


Everyone is searching for a cure for their insatisfaction. We wrongly suppose the answer is obscured and that obstructions must be overcome on a long and exhausting trip which takes us far into unchartered lands. Like a mirage our goal recedes as we advance. In the frenzy of our desparate quest we ignore our immediate surroundings, mesmerized by the distant majestic peaks of our imagined destination. The bull is not lost, your search is like that for your glasses on your own nose or your hat on your head. Our ox-herder has got on the ox to go looking for the ox. There is no separation from our true nature, nor is a confusion of our senses possible. We see what we see, hear what we hear and think what we think. Our tracks are always there, under our feet, and we are always at home. As the old lady said when directing the monk to Zhao Zhou's (Joshu's) Bai-lin temple: we should always "go straight ahead." Make no mistake that advice can also mean to go left or right, or even to turn back. Only by rejecting all dualisms can we see things for what they are.

The locust and all the 10,000 phenomena are manifestations of our true nature, to look elsewhere is to abandon it, to err endlessly in a land where no place is home; in a labyrinth of dualities.

Inevitably we discover the traces since everything, everywhere is evidence. Nothing, even ourselves, can be external to the ONE (thus: "one finger zen"). Far from being simply evidence; everything, everywhere is itself that for which we search. Things are not evidence of reality, but are reality itself. Apart from immediately reality there are only illusions generated by our mental constructions. Understand this and you understand the teaching. The path is always just in front of you. You need not discriminate to discern it. Once you commence to divide true from untrue, your task is unending. Stop! don't speak, even to think (even about thinking) is to lose yourself in a sea of illusions.

Perceiving the Bull

Discovering the Footprints


Catching the Bull

You've seen the traces and now the ox, important progress indeed to pass from signs to direct perception! To go from the source of illusions to reality itself. Now you're directing your attention to immediate reality and therefore no illusion can hide it. Like Magritte's "This is not a pipe"; what an artist can draw is not a bull. While you drink water, you don't ask if it's warm or cold. The six senses (the sixth is the perception of your thoughts) "merge" when you use them together to perceive directly, to become one with "the 10,000 things" (in Chinese culture, 10,000 = infinity!). In so doing you cross the threshold from duality into the unity of all things. That "entrance" is everywhere, always just in front of you. Each thing is unique and therefore incomparable. Each thing is exactly right to be what it, and only what it can be. As the butcher told the monk: "Each of our pieces (of meat) is the best." When you perceive your true nature, you will recognize it as a childhood friend.

The film Forbidden Planet took us to an (almost) uninhabited world where gigantic automated power plants produce endless power without apparent use. A lone stranded scientist struggled to discover the use for this enormous energy. When a search party arrives to "rescue" him against his will, fireballs of energy block them at every turn. The explanation was that the energy was at disposal of the scientist's unconscious desires.

Here we see that the ox's "great will and power" are inexhaustible and that he is capable of a "terrific struggle." When we discover that we are the only source of his energy the "struggle" will be over. Although he is always with you, you can't turn around fast enough to see him. Now you've caught him, he can no longer hide. Still, he seems insubordinate, used to his old ways, searching for new satisfactions while remaining always unsatisfied. You think you can whip him into obedience, yet another illusion!


Taming the Bull


Riding the Bull Home

Separating yourself from your true nature, you imagine you must force the ox to obey. This error will be self-proving until you understand that your Buddha-nature is naturally satisfied, naturally gentle. The whip and rope were themselves their only justification. No effort is required, everything, including all the phenomena which are you, are simply what they are. Understanding that your thoughts are phenomena like all others, they will at last appear as they are, all true to themselves; beyond the delusions of true and false. Then you will understand that immediate reality is the gateway to enlightenment and the Lord Buddha's touching the ground is opening the "gate", which only illusion sees.

Here as in all the first six of these pictures there's the fundamental defect of the duality of two selves: the self of everyday life and the self of our Buddha-nature. Not only is this, like all dualities, false; but the illusion of even one self is itself false as a violation of the doctrine of the non-existence of self. Perhaps the answer is that we must crawl before we can walk. However crawling is not a means of learning to walk, which requires the rejection of crawling.

To mount the ox is to become one with your true nature; once united with it you're already home. Flute and hands beat in harmony with the 10,000 things. All things, directly perceived, form the path (Tao) of the enlighten one. To realize your place in this flow of events there is neither joy nor sadness, rather infinite satisfaction. Once achieved this realization of the perfect harmony of all things will never be voluntarily renounced.

Here again one must note that although once acquired the capacity to enter nirvana (that is of course what we are referring to here) is never renounced; it is not the case that a Buddha remains permanently in that state. On the contrary, it is characteristic of one possessing the capacity to enter nirvana at will that he or she will reenter samsara for the sake of those that may be aided thereby

The Bull Transcended


This picture, its verse and commentary express a single point: that all has been one since the beginning. The "ox" was only a means to realizing this fact. Once realized, the world of samsara is experienced as it really is: nirvana. Abandoning your attempt to force phenomena to conform to concepts ends the sense of struggle and turmoil inspired by the illusions of samsara. Then the perfect unity of all things, including yourself, appears effortlessly. The disappearance of the obscuring cloud, doesn't create the moon, but only reveals it. As the Lord Buddha correctly taught us: He created nothing; rather He simply discovered the truth about how the world works.

Here, finally, we discover the consequences of this truth: that nothing is independent or permanent. All things are an integral part of the entire cosmos (*). All messages (concepts, dogmas) are swept away by passing time, as footprints in the sand on the sea-shore. To understand this is to accomplish the goal of abolishing all goals. For a Buddha there is no enlightenment, no Buddhahood; and samsara and nirvana are one. For Him praise and blame are the same.

Once a dying Master's selected successor, attending at his bedside, slid a vial of medicine toward him. The Master criticized him violently because the gesture was useless. The disciple, without changing expression simply slid the vial back again. The Master smiled and said: "Now that I know I have a worthy successor I can die satisfied

(*) See Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, Anchor Doubleday 1985/7, pages 241 and following

Reaching the Source

Both Bull and Self Transcended


Immediate reality is the source of everything. It is the beginning and the end of every quest. What happens in between is without consequence. The sooner you "give up" the better. The harder you race toward the imaginary goal the farther you get from it. Although trying hard is better than being too lazy to attempt, or continue; it is better to awake to the treasure-house within yourself. Then nothing need be sought, nothing need be gained. When you see the statues of the Lord Buddha touching the earth, understand that He is teaching you that dwelling in immediate reality is release from illusion and freedom from illusion is enlightenment.

When the traveller on the Tao reaches his/her goal the 10,000 things are again just as they are, just as they were before entering the gateless gate. Nevertheless he/she is infinitely richer for the experience. Now his/her heart flows with the 10,000 things, ignoring the intoxication of senses and experiencing being MU directly. Everything is MU, MU is "alive", therefore everything is "alive" (or, if you prefer: interdependent and in constant evolution). Everyone is an integral part of the entire cosmos. Impossible (and therefore the attempt is selfdefeating) to hold oneself apart from this universal process. Time and space collapse and a dead tree is also a sapling in bloom ("the beauty is invisible"). No longer obliged to follow the ideas (rules) of others, you become autonome, complete. Fully satisfied with oneself, and therefore with everyone and everything (Lord Buddha upon His illumination: "My work in this life is finished"), there's no need to prolong (or shorten) one's life.

In the World



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