The Practice of Zen

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Home » Articles by the Teacher, Oxherding Picture Series

Oxherding Picture 2: Traces of the Ox

By Ruben Habito


Artist: Jim Crump

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.

I present these pointers on the second of the ten oxherding pictures nurturing a hunch, that in fact many of you here who have been in zen practice for some time are already familiar with it by now. Having sat in zen meditation on a regular basis a few months, or a few years for some of you, you may already be at a place where you have seen signs or traces of the ox. Here I offer some perspectives that might clarify some things that are already happening in you.

Some of you may also be thinking that you’ve gone beyond this stage of the path. “I’m already at a more advanced stage with the ox,” you may be saying to yourself. But I’d like to come back to a prefatory remark that I had made at an earlier talk on these ten oxherding pictures.  It is not to be taken strictly as a linear, progressive path that leads to a summit, and then you can say, “I’m there.” Rather, it is better to describe it is a spiral path that continues to lead us deeper and deeper into the center of the Mystery of who we truly are. And at each step along the way, there is a fullness that we are invited to fathom and relish.

So, whatever stage we may be in our journey of life, we are called simply to BE THERE, and not just keep looking ahead to the next steps in a way that we miss living the fullness of where we are. If you are a teenager, you may sometimes think, “ah, wouldn’t it be good to be a grown-up so I can do things on my own, and not be hampered by these rules,” and so on. You may be looking forward to the time when you are already beyond the control of your parents, with your own job, your own apartment, so you can do whatever we want and not have to ask permission from adults all the time. But if you go on living with that kind of wishful expectation about what is yet to come when you turn 21, then you miss the fun of being a teenager. Or if you are in our twenties, a time when you may be at the height of your physical abilities, and full of possibilities about what you can do with your life, and at the same time with its uncertainties, you may sometimes tend to wish you were already in your 30s so you could be a little more stable and see things more clearly. In short, if we keep on taking wherever we are at only a stage to the next one, then we are missing the fullness of what that particular stage has to offer.

At this point I will focus on the 2nd stage, where we see traces of the ox all over the place. Or it may be perhaps even just one or two places.  And yet, we see that that trace, that hunch, that aroma, is enough to give us the confidence that we are in the right place, and the ox itself may appear to us any moment as we stay right there.

With that in the background, let me offer a few other preliminary comments to launch us into tasting of this second of the Zen oxherding pictures.

The 1st picture depicts the beginning of the search. This is the first stage of awakening from a life in the world of phenomena whereby we are simply driven along by our natural instincts. Here we live our life impelled by basic drives for pleasure and for power. We may also live life in the fulfillment of duty. These, incidentally, are the first of the three human wants as described in the Hindu tradition: pleasure (kāma), power (artha), and duty (dharma).

In the midst of this, we come to a point where we realize that there must be something more to life, and thus begin to ask fundamental questions about the way we live our own life, about ourselves, about the world.  Such questions may lead us to seek a spiritual path, and inspire us to set aside certain things that we realize are not that important for us in order to devote more of ourselves to that spiritual search. Such questioning calls for an internal shift in our priorities in life. That is the first stage when we awaken to the fact that there must be something more to life than what meets the eye.

Now, as we begin to take steps along that path, we begin to see indications that confirm us in this direction we have taken. The second picture already presupposes that we have embarked on a spiritual path. You are already convinced that there is something more to life than just material pursuits or pursuit of power, or even the pursuit of duty. You have already experienced the seeds of awakening, called bodhicitta, the heart or the mind that impels us to go further, “to Infinity and beyond,” quoting from Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story. So, with that, we are clear that there is something we need to do to go on seeking. For some of us, it may mean joining a community of spiritual practice, so you look in the yellow pages or on the internet for centers that offer spiritual retreats or guidance in meditative or contemplative practice. Taking our very community here at Maria Kannon Zen Center as an example, you may be with us now sitting together for a few months or maybe a few years, so you are now somehow committed to pursuing in this path with the support of the practice community. And so what this 2nd stage tells us is that we are able to receive certain indications, or intimations, that we are on the right path. This is not just because somebody told us, but from our very own experience, somehow something tells us, this is it, this is where I want to be and this is how I want to proceed with my life, that is, in continuing this spiritual practice. We get certain glimpses that confirm us in our practice, and draw us on to go deeper into it.

How can we describe those inner glimpses of confirmation? It could happen during an ordinary sit with the community. You are just sitting there, trying to calm your mind and as you breathe in and as you breathe out, then continuing with the normal struggles of trying to put your mind in place “Oh, there it goes again,” and then you go back to your breath. Right then and there, and it could be in a matter of even just a second or two, you are just there, breathing, and somehow, you experience a moment of total stillness. In that brief moment, your whole perspective shifts. You now know that that stillness is possible, because you have touched it and experienced it, or perhaps better, it has touched you.

I remember an occasion in Japan, where a Catholic nun from the Sacred Heart High School invited me to guide a retreat for the graduating class, she said, as her “graduation gift” to them. (This Catholic nun, by the way, was herself a Zen practitioner at that time, and is now an authorized Zen teacher in our Sanbo Kyodan lineage.) What a graduation gift indeed. Oh, poor students, I thought then, and could not help but smile with some tinge of irony.  It was this resourceful nun’s way of giving her teenaged students a form of training toward disciplining themselves, which could be useful for them as they prepare to go to college and as they find their way to their young adulthood. In Japan, that is not a big deal because the society itself is built on a lot of structures that help in that kind of discipline. Maybe, it is disintegrating now but there is a sense of respect for tradition and a sense of treading a beaten path wherein one simply needs to follow where others have gone. So there were about 40 or 50 high school students who gathered together in a big zendo in Japan that we were allowed to use for the weekend.  They were kind of in awe at being able to make a Zen retreat. They were not forced into it, since they were given other options, like a more “traditional” kind of preached retreat, but they chose to make the weekend Zen retreat.

During that retreat, I gave introductory talks explaining the basics of posture, breathing, and stilling the mind, trying to encourage them and soothe their struggles with aching legs and aching back, with the mind wandering all over the place, thinking, “how many more minutes until that darn bell rings?” and so on. In my talks I emphasized keeping their attention on the here and now, and especially while sitting, counting the breath with each exhalation. At the end of the retreat, at the final session on Sunday afternoon, we were now seated together around the zen hall taking tea, sharing impressions and reflections, before we were to depart for home. We went around the circle one by one, and each one described how the retreat was for them. One of the retreatants who related that she really took the instructions to heart as she was told, that is, just count with your outbreath from one to ten, so One with the outbreath, slowly and then breathing in again, breathing out Two, slowly and so forth. Although she reported having the same struggles that everybody was having, aching legs and back, wandering mind, and so on, at some point, she related, just counting with each breath, “I suddenly was just one with number Three! Of all the things that happened during the retreat, the one moment that stands out right now for me is that at that moment, I became one with number Three!”  That is how she described it.  Just that: one with number Three. She just “tasted” being number Three. By number four perhaps, she was lost again in new distractions, but yet that moment of being one with the number three stood out for her in a way that gave her a sense of what this practice is all about.

The refreshing news of that is that she continued to communicate with me every now and then even after graduation, even after she got married and had children, telling me of how her life went on to unfold further since that graduation retreat. So somehow, it seems that that single moment, of becoming “one with number Three,” made an impact in her life, and from that point on she wanted to really let herself live from that perspective of that little moment that she saw, from the perspective of that stillness she experienced at the retreat. And so, she continued on a spiritual path, having tasted what it can be in that single moment.

Many of us may be here because of some similar intimation in our early life. We may have been children when something struck us and from that moment on, we knew that there was something more to life than just these phenomenal things that many of our contemporaries are enchant by.  And so, with that then, that kind of touch, that kind encounter even with just a trace of the ox, will not leave us for the rest of our life, and can empower us to continue firmly along the way.

Of course, we can always be swayed by other distractions and by other thorns and thickets, and therefore get exasperated and set this practice aside.  But it remains within us continuing to tug us from within. From a Christian perspective, there is this poem called The Hound of Heaven, where the “hound of heaven” is an analogy for that which pursues us wherever we are, drawing us back to come home, enticing us back to where our hearts will really find peace and joy.  We, in our own immaturity or in own folly, seek different kinds of consolation, seek distraction, and seek all kinds of titillations and so forth, but somehow, when we come back to our right senses, there is something that draws us back saying, “Look, there is something in you bigger than that measly crumb you are holding on to.”  “There is something more to your life than just those paltry pursuits. Listen well!”

With this, I am reminded of a very entertaining as well as enlightening film that I’d like to recommend, called Enlightenment Guaranteed.  This is a film by the well known German director, Doris Dorre, about two brothers who experienced struggles in their life in Germany, one is in the corporate world, the other an artist, I recall. Seeking “something completely different” than their despondent ways of living life in their own country, they are drawn to come to Japan to do Zen. This film is about their experiences as they make this journey, and much of it is really so hilarious, but also deals with a serious theme. We may be able to identify with some of the things that happen from your own experience of Zen practice.  The message that comes out of seeing this film is that for many people, what the practice of zen meditation leads to is not so much a distinctive moment when one can say, “Wow, now I’m enlightened.”  It is not that kind of thing that you can put on your lapel and say, “now I have it,” as opposed to “not having it.” The second part of the title, “guaranteed,” is the point of emphasis here. Now that you have found yourself on the path, you are now guaranteed to be precisely on the path to enlightenment. Traces of the ox will be seen along your way, in different forms, if you are paying attention. I guarantee it, as the TV commercial for men’s clothing goes.

I have a couple of other suggestions to offer. Once we have received those “intimations of infinity” in our lives that I have described earlier, it will never let us go, and it will continue to draw us back. So it is now up to us to see to it that we give ourselves the proper conditions so that this can be cultivated and given ample room to grow, and deepen. If we are fully attentive and pursue the path with care, at some point, we may be able to see not just a trace, but the ox itself. And what does sighting the ox involve for us?  That is the topic of Picture Number Three, but not something that is irrelevant to number two. It is simply a realization that there is really nothing “out there” to look for. It is the realization that we are already in the midst of that which we are looking for.  So, to put it in terms of seeing the traces, there are traces everywhere such that the ox itself is already smiling at us. “Look, it’s right here! I’m here!”

We are seeing those as traces but in fact, if the veils of our eyes were uncovered, we will see that those traces are the ox itself, smiling at us. So, where are those traces to be found? The only thing I can say here is this: Open your heart, open your eyes, open your ears! Clap! How about the color of that wall, or what about that sound that you are hearing, or how about the train that comes every now and then as we sit here shaking the entire building? These are very very obvious traces of the ox for those with true eyes to see and ears to hear. Those traces themselves already are trying to show us that the ox is smiling at us, right here, but we are blocked from seeing, with the delusive thought that there is something in here called the “true self” wanting to realize itself, or that there is something “out there” that I have yet to realize.

A condition for us to be able to let that ox be manifest in its fullness is to let go of this notion of the “I, me, mine,” here trying to get enlightened, or trying to find that ox. So, let us just immerse ourselves in to whatever we are doing or whatever we are stationed, namely as we sit breathing in and breathing out, just lose yourself in breathing in and breathing out.  Just be that, and if I may use words to point to something very important, that is all!  Just be there where you are, breathing in and breathing out. And by “all” I mean, not a self-contained entity that I refer to as “all,” but to utter some more verbiage that may risk just confusing you more, really, it is “all that there is, that is most intimate to me right here, right now.”  The trace is showing us the reality of what is.

But before I reveal too much, I would like to just mention another very important thing that can happen, for us to see traces.  Sometimes, we may experience what psychologists call a “peak experience” that can occur in a variety of ways. That experience can then become a highlight in our entire life, a landmark that we can keep returning to and be grateful for. As we cherish such experiences, there is also tendency for us to hold on to them, saying to ourselves, “This particular place is where I had such a precious experience, so I want to stay here, and set up an altar to commemorate it.” We may experience something holy and profound when we are out somewhere in the natural world, in the woods, in the mountains, somewhere near a lake—an experience that moves us, so now we want to enshrine the place and build a landmark there in cement. We want to light incense before that shrine we have built at that particular location, setting it apart as a special place, different from other places. We tend to want to put our little experiences of the holy into some kind of frame that we can mount on our wall and show it proudly to others. We have a tendency to want to frame precious pictures, or cling to memories of good things, putting them on an altar in our mind, and we always want to come back to them or recapture them, saying, “Oh, I wish I could have it again.”

Our Zen practice tells us that those experiences that come along the way, those “droppings from the ox” are not to be clung to or held up and framed on our wall. They are to be regarded merely as pointers to that elusive reality of the ox, inviting us to keep our eyes and ears open so that we may see the ox itself, rather than be left with the droppings. These traces of the ox that we find need to be cleaned out, and we need to continue polishing the mirror of our mind so it can be more transparent, and be more able to reflect what truly is there before us. We are enjoined not to keep holding on to those little experiences that come our way, lest our mind be too preoccupied with them and thereby miss the ox right in front of us.

I conclude this set of comments on the second of the oxherding pictures by noting that the expectation of the sighting itself maybe what maybe throwing us off.  We may be thinking, “Why don’t I get it yet?”  There are these traces all over the place, and we experience these moments of stillness and consolation, and so forth. So we get excited, thinking, “I’m almost there, I’m almost there.” But it is that thought itself that may be deflecting us from realizing the fact that we are already there.

So, the only thing I can offer by way of recommendation here is this: Just recall three components of Zen practice, and take them to heart. From the orientation talks we offer to those beginning this practice, we note that there are three basic elements that we need to keep in place as we sit in Zen: Great Trust, Great Doubt, and Great Resolve. What I would like to emphasize at this point is, that first, namely, the Great Trust that you have everything you could ever want or need right there where you are. Your Buddha nature, and for those of you who are Christian, what you may call your Christ nature, that capacity within you and in all sentient beings to realize the Infinite, is already there to the fullest in everything you are and in everything you do, and there is nothing more that you need to look for.  But yet at the same time, we can’t help it but be confronted with that Great Doubt. “But why can’t I experience it yet?” This Great Doubt thus generates that Great Resolve, that is, to give everything we have to get to the bottom of it.

So let those three components be activated, but most of all, cultivate that Great Trust. There is nothing more to realize than just this. With that, we are freed of that sense of separateness that is caused by that yearning for “something else” that we think we don’t yet have. Just take each thing as it comes, each breath, each step and be there fully. Let go of that self that is trying so hard to be enlightened. Let go of that self that is trying to “get something” out of all this effort and this assiduous practice. Just taste the exquisiteness of each moment as it comes, whether you are sitting, standing, walking, eating, and so on. As you take each moment for what it is, just as it is, you may be surprised by what is right there.