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Home » Articles by the Teacher, Oxherding Picture Series, Practice

Oxherding Picture 1: Launching the Search

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

We have started a series addressing The Ten Oxherding Pictures which come from the Zen tradition as an expression of the path to self-realization. Each of the ten Oxherding pictures represents a stage along the path of awakening to true self.

The first picture in the series of ten is one where we see a little child beginning to search for something. So, it depicts the beginning of the search for the true self. There is a commentary entitled Riding the Ox Home, by Willard Johnson, which presents an interpretative title for this picture: “In the beginning, struggling to emerge from confusion.”

Before going into greater detail, let me just recall one important point in the general overview offered last time. What we have here to consider is not necessarily a linear progression whereby the first is the lowest and the tenth is the highest. Instead, we are invited to see it as a spiral movement moving ever closer to the center, where we are all connected.

* * *

Wherever we are, whatever stage we may be in in, is an integral part of the circle, and that constitutes a particular and distinctive manifestation of our true self. Each stage has its own place in the full circle that is our true self. In short, each step on the way in that spiral movement toward the center of the circle is itself full and complete. And yet, that fact, that each step already is full and complete does not mean we just stop there and not take the next step. Each step is taken in its own due time, leading naturally to the next. And still, with each step is a fullness to it, so that we are not left thinking, “well, I am not complete yet, because there’s a next step to be taken.”

We are invited to experience each step as full and complete, just as it is. So when we are in a certain stage, we are invited to simply let ourselves be there, and let that stage take care of itself, and let that situation be truly a mark of that spiral journey where each step manifests a fullness and yet which leads to the next, and on and on toward the center.

To present this in terms that would also resonate with a theme in the Christian tradition, we say that the Reign of God is already there, right there in our midst, but also, at the same time, it is not yet. Now, from a conceptual point of view these two descriptions seem to cancel each other out: already there, and not yet. But seen from within, namely from an experiential standpoint of that reality that is called the Reign of God, the Infinite Realm within which our finite lives are always immersed, we are invited to realize that we are truly already there. “The Reign of God is in your midst,” Jesus proclaims to his followers. (Luke 17:21). The reverse can also be said: “You are in the midst of the Reign of God.” In fact, we have been there right from the start. There was never a time when we were not, if we can talk along those terms of  linear time. One other way of putting this is thus: God’s Infinity covers all time and all space, and therefore there is no place conceivable wherein God is not, just by the very nature of what God is by definition. And yet, in that very realization we experience also the invitation to continue to manifest it more fully, leading us more and more toward a greater fullness of its manifestation within the confines of our finite mode of being. There is this paradox of our human existence that we are incomplete and imperfect historical beings, moving toward completion and perfection in the fullness of time. God is there every step, and yet, the following step must be taken toward greater fullness. This reminds us of Gregory of Nyssa, who described the journey of the Christian toward the Infinite God as a path “from Glory to Glory.”

* * *

So the first step then, involves an awakening that urges us to begin this journey toward our true self. What goes before that?  Chronologically speaking, we can say that we were in a stage of just being in slumber, that is, a stage before awakening.

Now, rather than going into too much conceptual detail, let me offer some illustrations of actual persons who have manifested this stage in their own path. The first person whom we are invited to look at is Shakyamuni himself. He was born in the 5th century or so, BCE. There are differences in scholars’ opinions about the actual birth dates. But in any case, around the 5th century there was a man born of a royal family, whose clan owned a big domain in Northern India at that time, which now is under the territory of Nepal. This young man was named Siddhartha, which by the way means, one called to complete one’s being. “Artha” is “goal” or “meaning” or “purpose” and several other related meanings, and “Siddha” means to complete. So Siddhartha is a name that already indicates the actual destiny that this person was called to realize in his earthly life.

He was born of this kingly clan, and was already destined at birth to inherit his father’s realm. And so, given the appropriate time, he was destined to become a ruler of that domain. In a sense, he had nothing more to worry about in life: everything was taken care of. From his birth, all the stars were in his favor. He had everything anyone could have wished for in this earthly life. And yet, somehow, the puzzle is, why would such a person at 29, set all that aside, really literally divest himself of everything, and begin a journey seeking “something more.”

So, again we are told in many of those traditional accounts about his life that up to that stage his father had tried to ensure that he would not be exposed to any experience of want or of suffering. So he was brought up within the palace; given everything that he would want and so on. His father sought to assure him that he would be granted all the material and other needs that one could imagine. And yet, for some reason or other, he was not satisfied with that. Now, for some reason or other, is precisely our paradoxical way of saying it. And so, what we can learn in looking at Gautama’s life, is that even given all the material satisfaction that a human being can ever want, that just is not enough. This reminds us of a song that was popular in the ‘60s or ‘70s, of Peggy Lee who sang “Is That All There Is?” Now, we may be at a point where everything goes our way, and yet some twinge of conscience makes us ask, “Is that all there is?”

* * *

Somehow the human spirit is called to something greater than whatever material satisfactions can ever fulfill. So this twinge from our inner voice trying to rouse us from slumber, seems to be what has propelled many of the great individuals who have contributed to human culture.

In the Christian tradition, so many of the saints began their journey with that big question, “is that all there is?” They began a quest for “something more.” In the Jesuit tradition, its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was already in his early thirties when he began his search. Up to that time he had been spending all his time and energy trying to gain honors and prestige at the court of Spain. He was just engaged with all his energy upon winning the attention of royal personages, especially the noble ladies, so that he would win their favors and therefore rise in the ranks. At one point, he was wounded in a battle, and that left him hospitalized for about 6 months. But during those 6 months of recuperation, he was able to take stock of his life, and he felt a big twinge of emptiness and a longing grew in him which propelled him to understand a sense of a gap in his existence. He also noticed the sense of fullness he would experience whenever he would read lives of saints.

Here were individuals who lived not so much to fulfill the material wants, or drives for power and money and self glory and so on, but lived fully dedicated in the service of God and of others. So somehow he felt that, looking at his future, he too was called to a search on the spiritual level. This gave him a very, very deep and inexorable sense of peace and fulfillment that enabled him to see through all his worldly and vain pursuits that had occupied him before, and he simply realized that that was no longer the way he wanted to live the rest of his life. We will not into the details here, but to make a long story short, from that time on he undertook a spiritual search that eventually led him to become the founder of a religious order of men fully dedicated in service to others for the glory of God. He compiled a notebook of his own experiences which he used to guide others in spiritual practice, also as a way of training others as guides in the inner journey, which came to be known as The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, of which I will say more at the appropriate occasion.

Let us go back to the life of Gautama. He had all the material things that anyone could ever imagine that a human would ever want: all the material wealth that he needed to maintain his physical life; all the emotional support from a family; he had a child at that age of 29 when he began his search. He also had the realization that he could have a lot of worldly benefits—all the things that human beings look for: power, authority, wealth, prestige and so on. And yet, the question for him was, is this all that I am called to live for? And so, again, to make a long story short, it is said that he saw his fellow human beings in different states of suffering. He saw human beings in states of sickness, states of growing old and therefore losing their capacities to function as a healthy human being, and he also saw death in the face and realized this is also something that will happen to me.
Faced with these realities, the big question came: what is this life all about? And how can I really discover that true peace that will enable me to live content with myself and at peace with the world? So that was the beginning of his search. And as I have already noted, he left everything: his social position, all his material wealth, and so on, to devote himself fully to his search for answers to the big questions. His search took him six years, until the noted experience of Great Awakening.

* * *

We will talk about the experience of awakening from different angles in our continuing teishos dealing with the Ten Oxherding Pictures. At this point, what I would like to invite everyone, is to ask yourselves: What were the circumstances that precipitated the search in my case? Where, in my own life did I begin this search? Maybe if we can come back to that original point or that point in our own historical journey where the questioning began, perhaps we can again recover some of that zeal, some of that enthusiasm, some of that freshness that was ours when we began the search. This is so, especially along the way, if we are in this search for some time now and we’re beginning to get bogged down in some kind of routine. It is refreshing to come back to that point where we ask ourselves: “Is that all there is?” What is there in life that is calling me to something greater? There is a well known book by a Zen Master who came to the United States, Shunryu Suzuki, entitled, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” This is an invitation to always come back to that initial question: what is this all about? This is beginner’s mind.

Another person who is of reference to us in understanding this first picture of the Ten Oxherding Pictures is the Second Patriarch in China, Hui-k’o, pronounced Eka in Japanese. “Wisdom Fruit” is the literal meaning of his name. The Second Patriarch went to visit Bodhidharma, the monk who was reputed to be a sage from the Western Regions. There was this person from the Western parts (India), a foreigner, a stranger in China. He had settled in some place near a forest and he had been sitting there and had been living his life as a hermit; just living and spending most of his time sitting, meditating, facing the wall of his cave.

His reputation grew around the neighboring villages, and so this young man–young, maybe in his early forties at that time–went to this sage and asked him. “Please tell me, what can I do with my life? My mind is not at ease; I am anxious about my life. My mind is not at rest, please set it at rest.” So there is something that made him very anxious or that somehow made him look for something more than what he was already doing at that time. It was a turning point in his life.

And so, Bodhidharma, as the story goes, asked him, “If your mind is not at rest, bring that mind to me and I’ll set it at rest.” And that was Bodhidharma’s way of inviting him to take hold of that mind that was causing that anxiety or that was in that state of anxiety, by following the way that we are now taught to sit in the Zen tradition: to sit still in a straight posture, breath in and breath out in a regular and rhythmical way, both deeply and naturally, and let our minds simply be at rest. Or let our mind be there so that we can present it to Bodhidharma. And so, that’s what the Second Patriarch tried to do. The punch line of the koan goes: “I have tried all my best and I have looked for that mind and I have realized that it is unreachable.”

* * *

And so, the answer of Bodhidharma as the koan goes is, “There, I have given rest to your mind.” This interchange is an invitation to those who are practicing to actually see what was the experience of Eka or Hui-K’o, the Second Patriarch,when he was finally able to realize “the unreachable.” That’s the invitation for us. “I have realized that it is unreachable.”

That is not a statement of despair or giving up the search, but precisely a realization of something that points beyond oneself. To point out, or rather exclaim from the bottom of one’s being that “it is unreachable” is to simply admit that, what I’m looking for is not within the realm of the finite. That which we grasp not within the material domain but precisely something that goes way beyond that. It is that which we can call unreachable. Hui K’o states: “Now I have realized that; now I am at peace.” That is the implication of Hui-K’o’s answer–the experiential dimension of his discovery. It is not just a denial of the need to go on further, saying, “it’s unreachable so I won’t go on from here.” But it is precisely a statement that its unreachability is what I have realized, and so that gives me peace.

This again brings us back to the first picture: what is that which we are looking for in life? We are invited to look at that particular point, and as I asked each of you who come to dokusan for the first time (or, for some individuals maybe I need to keep asking it), what is it that you seek in this practice? And that is a question that invites each one to come back to that point that leads us to seek the path that will open our eyes to who we are.
So this is the invitation of the first picture: to again search our minds and look for that precise point, so that we can appreciate what propels us along the path. What is it that I am seeking? Is it inner peace? Is it the solution to the question of life and death? These will be cast in different ways depending on our own personalities, or depending on our own way of seeing ourselves in the spectrum of different psychological characteristics and so on.

Well, it can be phrased in many ways, but the main thing that we can say to describe it, is that it is something that invites us to go beyond where we are right now. It is something that arouses us from our slumber, always inviting us to reach for the unreachable. And reach for an unreachable is not as this song, “Impossible Dream” says, an impossible dream. But it is precisely an invitation to take the next step from there.

* * *

So I’d like to just round off by saying that this first picture is the picture that describes the beginning of our search. It is a renewed invitation for all of us who are here to take the next step. And what is the next step? Simply to be here, in this present moment. We are invited to take Bodhidharma’s advice to the Second Patriarch: “Bring me that mind that is anxious and not at rest, and I will set it at rest for you.” So let us continue letting ourselves be propelled by that anxious mind that wants to seek peace. And this will enable us to take the next step, that we may realize the unrealizable; that we may reach the unreachable.

In Spanish there is a word to describe the starting-point of the search: the word, “inquietud.” It is not what we would translate in English as “inquietude.” But in Spanish, “inquietud” refers to “something in me that leads me to go on further.” It is not a negative term by any means. If there is an “inquietud” in me, there is something in me that is being aroused from its slumber, and leads me to go on. So let us take that as an invitation. Whatever stage we are, we are invited to just listen to that “inquietud,” that dynamic power which invites us to take the next step. A recollection of the beginning of our path draws us out of our slumber and stupor; giving us a new sense of freshness along the way.