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.