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Home » Articles by the Teacher, Oxherding Picture Series

Oxherding Picture 3: Seeing the Ox

by Ruben Habito

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles on The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. View all the available articles of the series here.


Artist: Jim Crump

By way of preparation for this third picture, let me give a summary of what has been covered before. The first picture depicted the launching of the search in an individual’s spiritual journey.  It marks that time in life when you begin to suspect that there should be something more to life that what you deal with on a day to day basis. This can be when something that jolts you comes into your horizon, shaking your foundations. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be the own confrontation with your own mortality, more concretely, the realization that I am going to die, conveyed to you through an illness or an accident or uncanny premonition. It could be something out of the blue, that makes you realize that there is something more than meets the eye in our day to day life. So you begin ask the big questions, and seek out books and articles on spirituality and religion, or start talking to close friends and confidants about such matters. Going one step further, you be led to join a group engaged in some form of meditative or contemplative practice.

The second picture describes the stage when one begins to receive inklings of a deeper reality than this humdrum existence. I recall the poem by Wordsworth entitled “Ode to Intimations of Immortality,” which describes a time

“…when meadow, grove, and stream,
the earth, and every common sight,
to me did seem
apparell’d in celestial light…”

Needless to say, this is not yet the decisive and transformative experience that the Zen tradition calls “seeing into one’s true nature” (kenshō), but can be regarded precisely as “intimations” of that Infinite realm that we will be referring to later. This can come to one engaged in a sustained practice of sitting in Zen, who now begins to taste the fruits of this practice: being more centered in one’s daily life, being more aware of the wondrous little things that come into view from day to day, being more able to “smell the flowers along the way,” so to speak. At this stage you may be experiencing consoling thoughts, receiving significant insights about being connected to all, finding a deeper sense of harmony with one’s surroundings and with one’s fellow beings, and so on. All this confirms that you are on the right path, and are inspired to go more deeply into it.

In this connection someone who comes to mind is Satomi Myōdō, a Japanese woman who was married, had two children, and in midlife received the Zen guidance of Yasutani Rōshi, becoming a Buddhist nun. Her story is found in a book in English under the title Passionate Journey, translated from the Japanese by Sallie King.  She recounts an experience as a young woman, pregnant and unmarried, having returned from Tokyo to be with her parents in their farm. As she was with her father working in a field, her father beckoned her to stop and look at a tiny winged ant making its way up a single weed. She describes what she saw at that moment in this way:

“I saw the grass and trees, the hills, river, fields and stones, the hoe and sickle, the birds and dogs, the roofs and windows—all shining brightly under the same sun. For me it was a wonderful breath of fresh air. Both the animate and the inanimate were vividly alive, familiarly addressing me and waving their hands. Struck by the unearthly exquisiteness of this world, I broke into tears and lifted up my face, weeping, in ecstasy. (p.9)

I cite Satomi Myōdō’s account of this experience to make the note that many of us may have experiences of a similar nature, whether we have already formally in the practice of Zen or not at all. Such “uncanny” experiences may have visited us as a child growing up, beholding the wonder of the world of nature, or perhaps in our youth or adult years, as we are thrown off our usual routine of things and are given a “close brush with the Infinite” in the midst of something very ordinary, like stopping on a hike to catch our breath, or leisurely looking at a starry sky at night, or patting our dog gently. But we must not confuse these experiences with what is called kenshō in Zen. They may be a prelude to it, or as indicators that we are not far from it at all. But these “close brushes” need to be distinguished from the transformative experience that actually seeing our true nature is all about.

This is the experience depicted in the third picture in the series, referred to as the sighting of the ox. This time, you know that the ox is really there because now you see it for yourself.  It’s no longer just a matter of believing that “the ox is somewhere there” and that you need to seek for the ox because others have told that they have seen it, or because others whom you trust have told you that there is an ox. Now that darn ox appears right there before your very eyes.

Going back to Satomi Myōdō, it was to take her many more years after that initial intimation of the Infinite, having gotten married, giving birth to two daughters, having been abandoned by her husband and losing one daughter, experiencing a nervous breakdown, and then recovering, and then at midlife entering into the formal practice of Zen under an authentic teacher, to be able to arrive at the decisive experience that turned the her world upside down. Describing this experience that gave her immense joy and freedom, she composed the following verse:

Dew drops, even dust—
Nothing is unclean.
The own-nature is pure. The own-nature is pure.
Kami and Buddha,
I’ve searched for you everywhere.
But you are here, you are here! (p.76)

Reading accounts of individuals who have traversed this path of practice and have arrived at that much-heralded point of “seeing into one’s true nature” (“own-nature” in the translation above) may encourage us and convey to us that we too are not far from it. The Three Pillars of Zen, edited by Philip Kapleau through the cooperation of Yamada Koun Rōshi, includes a section of such accounts of individuals who came under the guidance of Yasutani Rōshi. However, reading such things can also have the opposite effect of discouraging us, saying, “Oh, no, this can never happen in my case.” If this is how you are feeling at this point, my recommendation is for you to just forget about such stories and get back to your breath, and just be there in the present moment, where you are right now. And let me tell you, plainly and simply: it’s right there!

If these words manage to hit the target and trigger an experience, stop reading this, call your Zen teacher and make an appointment for dokusan, and take it from there.

If not, then you may go on reading. But please take note that this third picture is referring only the sighting of the ox.  You now know from your own experience that the ox is there, but the ox may still run away and disappear from your sight. This is because that initial sighting can recede into a simple memory or even “degenerate” into a mere idea or concept or philosophical notion, of “nonduality of absolute and relative” or “emptiness of all form” and or what have you. Or it can remain clouded with some doubt in your own mind, and you ask yourself, “Was that really the ox I was looking for, or was it something else? Or was it only a dream of an ox that I now remember vaguely?” And so it can regress to that level of a concept or memory or can be clouded in uncertainty, if we do not continue to polish the mirror of our mind, or if we do not continue to be alert and pay attention to that ox that is always there before our very eyes.

To express this in Christian terms, we may have been touched by the Infinite and Loving God in unmediated encounter at some point in our life, in a way that is clear and unmistakable to us at that moment when it did happen.  But in the aftermath, our insecure ego keeps trying to recapture that experience, wanting to frame it in our own terms. Having had the experience even make us feel “special” and “set apart” from others because of that precious gift we may have received, an “epiphany of the divine.” But precisely in doing so, the experience has now been downgraded into a mere memory of it, in a way that can bloat our insecure ego even more. We think we have an idea or notion about what God must be like, and so on, that we try to put it in conceptual language in the best way we can. And as we do so, the ox has now vanished from our immediate sight again, replaced only by a mental picture of it.

The initial sighting can be experienced by  many persons in various kinds of circumstances, but it one needs to continually polish one’s mind’s eye if it is not to regress into a mere idea or memory or a hazy image that can be coupled with a lot of delusions or connected with misleading notions. And so, sustained Zen practice what enables one to be always alert and able to keep that ox clearly in sight.

The fourth and the succeeding pictures describe stages of our journey whereby we become more familiar and intimate with the ox, bringing it home, making it part of our own household, and so on.  The main point I wanted to convey in describing this initial experience of seeing the ox is that it is not the be-all and end-all of Zen practice, as some literature may have us believe. It needs to be continually nurtured, through ongoing assiduous practice of sitting in stillness and coming back to the awareness of the here and now in paying attention to the breath. Now, if we maintain this stance of being alert and being totally present in our day to day life, the ox will be there in clearer view, and will not recede into such a mere concept or memory. Instead, it will continue to shed light on everything we think, say and do, and will continue to be an integral feature of who we are.

This initial experience of sighting the ox then can be a veritable turning point in one’s life.  As I noted earlier, in The Three Pillars of Zen, there is a section devoted to accounts of individuals who have seen the ox, in what context and life circumstance they were when they saw it. The account of Yamada Rōshi himself is included, in the section marked as “Japanese executive, age 47.” You may take a look at those accounts to give yourself a mental picture of what kinds of things happen in “seeing the ox.” At another time I would like to share a little more of my own experience.

It need not come only to those engaged in formal Zen practice. Many people might have had something like this early on, in childhood, or other stages of life, and some have recounted such experiences to me. It may come to one even without an explicit intent of looking for it, but just out of the blue. In a teishō I recall given at San-un Zendo in Kamakura, Yamada Rōshi related the story of Japanese woman in her 60s who was in a hospital bed, in terrible pain, and unable to sleep, she could just heard the sound of the clock, tick tock tick tock, all through the night. As she recounted it, she just disappeared in the “ticktock, ticktock,” and that experience was later confirmed by a Zen master as genuine kenshō.

This experience is not something that any one religious group can claim to have a monopoly on. Another example that comes to mind is Fr. Hugo Enomiya LaSalle, who had received guidance in Zen from Harada Daiun (Sogaku) Roshi as early as 1930s. He had continued practice on his own for many years, and then was inspired to come to Yamaha Roshi in the 1960s, and was confirmed in his own kensho experience in the early 70s. In a talk soon after confirming Fr. LaSalle’s experience, Yamada Roshi noted that this was not the first time Fr. Lassalle had “seen the ox” but had had such “sightings” many years back in his life as a Jesuit. Fr. Lasalle himself then responded by recalling his own experience as a young man, seeking God in one’s life, and wishing to do only what God willed for him in his life. This attitude is what predisposed him to the experience of God’s presence in his life. Those who knew him and worked with him through the years can confirm that he was a godly man indeed, marked by deep humility and openness, and you could tell that this was a person whose center of life was not himself, but God.  It was only in the last dozen or so years of his life, through Yamada Rōshi’s astute guiding hand, that his earlier experiences were formally recognized from a Zen perspective.

In the Miscellaneous Kōans given in our Sanbō Kyōdan lineage for those who have been confirmed as having had “sighting of the ox,” a glimpse of that world that the Heart Sutra refers to in saying “Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form,” the following reminder is given: “Attaining the Way, Realizing the Mind, is just putting your head through the gate.” Now you are invited to open the gate further, come in, and reclaim the vast and infinite territory that opens out before you.