The Zen Oxherding Pictures: Overview
by Ruben Habito
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles on The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. Oxherding pictures by Jim Crump. View all the available articles of the series here.
“The Ten Oxherding Pictures” is a set of ten calligraphic works that portray the different stages in the journey to the realization of the truth, or the realization of the true self. I will first give a general introduction, summarizing each of the ten so that we have a broad picture.
We look at the ten oxherding pictures as a mirror that can tell us where we are in our practice. As we gaze at one or other of the ten pictures, there may come a sense of recognition- “That’s it! That’s me!” And with this, we are enabled to go on deeper and therefore to understand that next step we need to take, precisely based on our realization of where we are.
One other preliminary point in looking at these ten oxherding pictures is to note that they are not to be taken necessarily as involving a linear and chronological progression, that is, in the sense that the earlier stages are somehow less important than or are only stepping stones to the latter ones. We look at each of them as offering an invitation to enter into a full circle in which our entire being is contained and immersed in right from the start. So looking at these pictures may help us to see where we are in the cosmic circle that includes the entire universe. But this should not lead us to think, “Ah, I’m better than so-and-so because I am in number six and she is just in number three!” We are not meant to see it in a way that bolsters our deluded ego. Conversely, we need not demean ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m only in number two, and others may be in number six or number seven.” And so on. We are invited to see it as a full circle, or perhaps better as a spiral path, where we are in a journey together, and companions along the way, as we each move closer to and closer to the center where we are all connected, and have been so right from the start.
So with the above in mind I would like to first of all make a comment about the circle that is common to all of the ten oxherding pictures. The circle, as we may know from our understanding of the Zen tradition, is a representation of our true self. And it is written in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy in a way that is not exactly mathematically perfect, that is, in a way that every point is equidistant from the center. Instead, it is written given all the contours and angles marked by the human hand that sketched it. That “imperfect circle” with all its particular contours is the manifestation of “things just as they are,” and not the mathematically correct figure where every point in the circle is equidistant from the center, which is only an idealized concept. In short, the circle is drawn by a human hand, with a brush, with all of the contours and angles, in its imperfection, is “perfect” just as it is. One other feature of this circle that you will note if you really look at genuine Zen work closely is that it is not a closed circle. There is always a slight opening somewhere and that indicates that it is not something that is contained in itself, but opens out to unlimited space, to an infinite horizon.
We now look at the circle, keeping in mind the question “Who am I?” and “How can I discover that true self as represented by a circle in me in a way that I can see myself also as open in that dimension that is unlimited?” If you take the cue from the circle it also represents…nothing. Precisely because there is nothing in it, it is also perfect and complete, just as it is. So these two elements–fully empty and yet totally replete–just as it is—tell us about our true self.
The first picture in the classic versions depicts a little child who is supposed to be perplexed, or is searching for something. An inscription in Chinese characters goes, “In the beginning, suddenly emerged from confusion.” Another description found in other versions of this same first picture of a child just beginning to open its eyes and wonder about things is “the awakening of the fact.” Our version, sketched by an artist friend of the Maria Kannon Zen Center, is of a cowgirl, looking about and apparently searching for something. This is the first stage in the awakening process asking the question: “What’s this all about?”
This is already a very significant step. In this first stage there is already a kind of awakening, namely, to a mind that asks fundamental questions. This is called “arrival at the Bodhi-mind,” or the mind of awakening. One is unsettled, asking “Who am I?” “How can I live my life in a way that is truly meaningful?” or “What is the meaning of all this?” Before arriving at this stage, perhaps we had been “asleep” many years, taking things in life for granted. We were once a child, then a teenager, and then we move on to adulthood, just following the “normal” stages and routines of human life. We may have gotten married and have started a family, and our children are on their way to leaving the nest, or have done so, so on. Then suddenly, at some point, the big questions start popping up in ways we cannot ignore. They may come when we are thirty or forty or fifty years of age. Or, it may come for some of us at an earlier age. The child in the picture represents that stage that now begins to awaken and ask, “What is this all about?” So the asking of the question leads us to seek ways that will enable us to pursue those questions more assiduously. This is the point where we seek a form of spiritual practice that will launch us in this direction.
The second stage is described as “finding the ox’s traces.” Now one gets a sense of where one may go in pursuing that question and is inspired to go on further. The ox here is a symbol of the true self in the same way that the circle also is the true self. And so now one sees traces, like hoof prints, or perhaps some droppings, that makes one suspect that the ox must be somewhere nearby. It may be in the form of some renewed confidence, that “there must be something that makes this life worth living, so let me delve deeper and find out what it is.” It may be an insight of one’s connectedness with all beings, conveyed to one in some unguarded moment. Spurred by these close brushes with the ox, one begins asking more questions and may begin reading some books, going to talks on spirituality, and so on. Or one may go to a religious center, or join a group to pursue some kind of practice that will deepen our sense of awareness and goad us on to go more deeply in our search.
The third stage is the sighting of the ox. Perhaps we may not yet see the whole ox, but we may have a glimpse its tail, or some part of the ox, that makes us sure that the ox is certainly there. But in a good many cases, this is just a slight glimpse, perhaps in a forest amid much foliage, or in the mist in semi-darkness, so we are not able to see it to its full extent. And yet, the glimpse we are given is enough to convey the fact that the ox is indeed right there! We may have seen it at close range, though it still seems somewhat elusive, as we still need to brush aside much that gets in the way of a full view. The glimpse just whets our appetite for more, and leads us to go further. In the Zen tradition, this third stage is known as the initial opening, or kenshō experience. This is the initial experience of awakening to the true self. We may have only a brief glimpse-but at least we know that it is there. Now we know, not just from hearsay or from others who have seen it, or not just from deducing it from the tracks we may have seen or the ox manure we may have smelled along the way. But having directly seen it, we know that it is there and so we are given a new impetus to follow it more closely and become more intimate with it. And so for those of us who may have had a new experience like this, so suddenly, coming to us like this, we may be tempted to say, “Now I’ve got it! Now, I’ve had kenshō and so I’m enlightened!”
Well, I’ve got news for you: you’ve only just begun what promises to be a lifetime journey. The sighting of the ox may still relapse into a memory or may become a beautiful concept that stays in our head, and in this case, it becomes just another ego trip, and more dangerous, as it is of a spiritual kind. (“Now that I’ve seen it.”), you may think you can claim yourself as an enlightened person and that will mitigate against the journey itself. So, that’s why in our center we do not make such a big fuss about that initial experience. It is like an initial sighting that should simply draw us on to look further.
The fourth stage is now the catching of the ox. After having sighted it we go closer to it and are maybe even able to lasso it and as the picture in one version shows, the little child holds a rope around the ox’s neck. Now, we have the ox closer at hand. But still the ox is unwieldy and it can still run away from us. It is still not under control. We have a rope that can enable us to keep it in tow. But still we have to continue to exert effort to enable it to stay there and not to run away from us.
The fifth stage, then, is one in which the ox has been tamed somewhat, and we are able to live in peace with it. It even follows us, and we are leading the ox along the path. We are now a little more accustomed to practice, and are now beginning to experience a sense of peace, a sense of joy. An inner satisfaction begins to make itself felt in our daily life, manifesting itself in our way of being more compassionate and being more thoughtful of others, and so on. And we begin to receive the fruits of the practice with less and less effort on our part.
The sixth stage is riding the ox home. We are now able to feel that we are on our way home. We can ride the ox and it doesn’t try to jump and throw us away like a bucking bronco anymore. It is now fully one with us, and we are comfortable riding the ox. But still, there is more to come.
The seventh stage is about forgetting the ox, leaving the child to simply sit there and be relaxed. Now, even the ox is gone. At this stage one is no longer thinking about oneself, no longer having to pursue words like “dharma” or “enlightenment” “true self,” and so on. We are home with ourselves, at home in the universe, and we don’t need to think about looking for something else. We are at peace where we are.
At the eighth stage, both the boy and the ox are forgotten. There is an empty circle represented here. There is no longer any ox, that is, no longer any sense of conceptualizing “truth” or “dharma” or “true self” or whatever. There is also no subject (I, me, mine) attempting to conceptualize or verbalize those terms. Both the subject and object are gone. In the seventh stage, the concept of truth, God, holiness, dharma and so on have disappeared, and you’re simply living life in its pure simplicity. The eighth is a stage where even thoughts about yourself are no longer an issue. In some versions, of the oxherding pictures, this eighth stage is given as the last stage. The ten stage version, however, has an important message that we are also invited to consider, and experience for ourselves.
The ninth stage is described as a return to the source. Now, after having forgotten both my “self” and the “world” (that is, what is thought to be “outside of myself,” what emerges? There’s a bamboo shoot. There is a plum blossom. There is a rock beside a gently flowing stream. Beyond that we don’t see anything. This is just the realization of the way things are, as they are, in their naturalness. It is simply realizing that plum blossoms are there, and they are just what they are. All the things in life accepted, taken just for what they are.
The tenth stage is the fullness and completion of the full ten stages. And what does this depict? Here we see the child again, in playful mirth. In India the statues of the Buddha are usually emaciated, giving a sense of asceticism and world-renunciation, of transcendence. In China, however, the pictures of the Buddha are always associated with mirth and laughter and gaiety. So he is depicted as a very roly-poly person, always laughing and happy. And so the Chinese deity of happiness and mirth came to be identified with the figure of the Buddha. Our version depicts the cowgirl meeting a jolly person on the road, and they join in play. This tenth stage is experiencing that sense of joy and mirth and playfulness in one’s daily life, no matter what. Another depiction of this stage is the return to the market place. We are back in the concrete struggles of our daily life. And yet, we are now able to live them, live right in the midst of them, with a sense of playfulness and inner freedom. We transcend life’s struggles and challenges, not by escaping them, but by plunging ourselves right into them with a new sense of freedom and equanimity, with a sense of humor and a sense of acceptance. This is the stage wherein the powers of compassion gush forth in our lives and enable us to live no longer seeking anything for ourselves, but in service to others, toward the alleviation of suffering and the promotion of the well-being of all.
I have here tried to offer a summary of the ten oxherding pictures in a way that may help us realize that there are different stages along the way, but that we need not get stuck on any particular stage and becoming smug with ourselves. In seeing these steps one by one, we can truly say, “It is good to be, every step along the way.” We keep coming back full circle: it is always the child in us that is the one who draws us to all this. So what we are invited to do is to keep returning to that child in us, that is truly the one who can partake of the gifts of our being human. And as we can see from the title of the book written by the Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, that is the place that we are always invited to return, that is, come back full circle to where we have been all along. Suzuki Roshi also famously said to his students, “You are perfect just as you are.” And in the same breath, he would say, “There is still much room for improvement.” There is no sense putting on airs, thinking to ourselves, “Now I’ve advanced along the path.” Yet again, we need not downplay our practice, thinking, “Woe is me, I still have a long way to go.” We can realize both aspects, but yet we also realize that it is a circle that we are invited to simply plunge ourselves into and open our eyes to. As we do so, we know that at every step along the path, there is a fullness that we can experience. It is a fullness that doesn’t let us stop there, but motivates us to take the next step, from fullness to fullness-through a never-ending process of emptying, and finding peace with every step.
Let us now look at each of these pictures in detail, as a way of appreciating the various features that emerge before us on in our path of awakening.