Ch'an Newsletter - No. 119,
The Ten Ox Herding
A talk delivered by Master Sheng-yen
on 10/22/92 and edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller. (For
further information on this subject, see Ox Herding at
Morgan's Bay by Master Sheng-yen) Drawings by Nora Ling-yun
The Ten Ox Herding Pictures are metaphors for the process
and progress of Ch'an practice. When China was an agricultural
society, people depended on oxen and buffalo to work their
fields. These animals were important, powerful and part of
human life, so the analogy of ox herding was meaningful to
Buddhists of the time.
An early incidence of ox herding as a metaphor for practice
can be found in a story from the T'ang Dynasty (618-906). A
monk was working in the monastery kitchen when his master came
in and asked what he was doing. He replied, "Nothing much,
just herding the ox."
The Master asked, "How are you herding it?"
The monk replied, "Every time the ox wanders off to eat
grass when he should be working, I rein him in and put him
back to work."
This story became a kung-an in which the ox
represents the mind, which the ox herder must train. In Ch'an
practice, the emphasis is on mental, not physical, practice.
If the mind is not pure, there can be no purity in body and
In the Lotus Sutra the white ox is a metaphor for
transcendence of the cycle of birth and death, or samsara.
Anyone who sees the white ox sees the great vehicle (of
Mahayana Buddhism) which can be taken to Buddhahood.
Many versions of the ox herding pictures were created
during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). They were often
accompanied by poetry. The most famous is attributed to
K'uo-an Shih-yuan, a twelfth century Ch'an master of the
Lin-chi school. All versions illustrate the process and levels
of Ch'an practice, as well as the recognition of
Buddha-nature, our original nature.
Do you believe that you have this ox, this Buddha-nature,
within yourself? If you have no faith in the existence of
Buddha-nature, or in the possibility of experiencing your
intrinsic self then ox herding is irrelevant. If there is no
ox to herd, there can be no ox herding, no progression. This
is true for people who have no interest in discovering their
intrinsic nature, as well as for those who once held the ox
and let it go.
The first picture is "Looking for the Ox." It
shows a beginning practitioner who has heard the teachings of
the Buddha and believes we each have Buddha-nature and the
ability to attain liberation. However, he has no personal
experience of Buddha-nature and must use methods of practice,
such as meditation and prostration, to discover the original
The practitioner discovers ox tracks in the
second picture. His mind has begun to calm and he has a sense
of something, but he sees that the ox is not easy to find.
Searching for Buddha-nature is like looking for a mountain
through a thick layer of clouds. Others say it is there, but
you are uncertain of what you see. Is it a cloud or a
mountain? The beginning practitioner has only seen tracks. Do
they belong to the ox? At this point you are attracted to
practice, and practice impels you to search. Practice enhances
your faith. This is seeing the traces of the ox.
In the third picture the practitioner sees the ox's tail.
Earlier, the sight of tracks gave him the faith to practice
diligently and now suddenly he sees an animal. This is also
described as seeing the face of pure mind, or the momentary
disappearance of self-centeredness. This picture is sometimes
described as seeing one's intrinsic nature, but it is only a
glimpse of something -- only the tail of the ox.
The practitioner catches the ox and tries to control it
with a rope in "Getting the Whole Ox," the fourth picture. He
perceives his own Buddha-nature, but still experiences
vexations caused by greed, anger, dislike and resentment. The
mind produces innumerable vexations in response to what is
around him. Seeing his intrinsic nature, the practitioner is
careful not to give rise to vexations and he knows the
environment has no real, permanent existence. Still, he
experiences vexations and must use appropriate methods and
views, such as meditation and the understanding of causes and
conditions, in order to deal with these problems. The methods
and views of Ch'an comprise the ox-controlling rope.
The fifth picture is simply called "Ox Herding." Now a
sage, the practitioner easily leads the ox by the rope. He has
progressed to somewhere between the eleventh and fortieth
stage of Mahayana Bodhisattvahood. Though he has few
vexations, he continues to practice diligently and make vows.
The direction of the ox herder and the ox is now clear.
"Riding the ox home," the sixth picture, shows an ox well
trained and obedient, familiar with the way. The ox herder
rides effortlessly on its back, playing a flute. This is the
first Bhumi position, or forty-first stage of Bodhisattvahood.
The practitioner no longer needs conscious effort to continue
to practice and make vows. The ox simply continues forward on
the path. The practitioner's actions are appropriate to each
The seventh picture is "Forgetting the Ox." The ox has
disappeared. Only the practitioner remains. This point is
between the first and the eighth Bhumi stages, and between the
forty-first and forty-seventh stage of the Bodhisattva path.
The practitioner exerts no effort, and practices
spontaneously, unconcerned with goals or purpose. Self
cultivation ceases. Beginning practice is like swimming
upstream. Great effort is required. Later the swimmer is one
with the water. Is there still swimming?
Both the ox and the ox herder have disappeared in the
eighth picture. Only a circle, the frame of a picture,
remains. The seventh picture removes the ox, which represents
the world, the object. Finally, the subject, too, disappears
in the eighth picture. Nothing remains. There is no goal and
The ninth picture, "Return to the Origin," shows a mountain
and a river. A novice practitioner sees mountains and rivers,
but does not recognize them as such. Now the adept sees
mountains as mountains, rivers as rivers. He has returned to
the world. Everything exists but his attachments. There is no
longer practice or no practice, wisdom or vexation. Everything
is complete, everyone a Buddha and the environment a Buddha
Traditionally, we see a beggar and a ragged, big-bellied
monk in the tenth picture. The beggar represents suffering,
the monk a practitioner who has completed his practice. He has
left the isolation of the mountain and returned to the world
to help all beings. He has no vexations, but because others
suffer he spontaneously provides help on the path to all
I have talked about each ox herding picture, but there is
an important point to add. People sometimes adopt a selfish
viewpoint from these pictures, because they suggest that we
practice until we attain Buddhahood before we even begin to
help sentient beings. This is not the way of Buddhism or
Ch'an. As soon as the Buddha's teachings begin to benefit you
in your life, you must begin to help sentient beings. Even at
the very first stage of ox herding, you should help others.
Don't simply wait for Buddhahood.
Question: Is this gradual or sudden
Shih-fu: Going through these stages in order is not
considered sudden enlightenment. It is best called gradual
enlightenment. People who experience sudden enlightenment may
share some of these experiences, but not necessarily in this
order. The Sixth Patriarch (638-713), who taught before the
Pictures were developed, never made reference to such a
The Pictures are useful in representing the process of
gradual enlightenment and are studied by practitioners in
China and Japan. With faith, we can all seek the ox,
Buddha-nature, within ourselves.
A report on the seminar
presented by Professor Dan Stevenson, by Steve Lane and Linda
This September, Professor Dan Stevenson of the University
of Kansas presented a two-and-one-half day seminar on
t'ien-tai Buddhism as part of the Ch'an Center's Buddhist
Studies program. Seminar participants were sent t'ien-tai
texts and articles about t'ien tai beforehand, so that they
would have a basic understanding of the subject.
Dr. Stevenson began by
describing the history of the t'ien-tai school, according to
Buddhist scholarship and according to the t'ien-tai school
itself. He discussed the great t'ientai master Chih-i's
organization and systematization of the sutras which had been
translated into Chinese by his time (53 8-597). Chih-i wanted
to show that the sutras are not contradictory, as they
sometimes seem to be, but rather form a cohesive system which
meets the needs and capacities of all sentient beings.
T'ien-tai texts discuss meditation practices in great
detail and have been used by many other schools of Buddhism,
including Ch'an. On Saturday, Dr. Stevenson talked about
these, based on the t'ien-tai text, T'ung Meng Chih Kuan.
T'ien-tai emphasizes the development of chih (calming) and
kuan (contemplation or observation) simultaneously and
equally, and provides methods for practitioners of differing
abilities. For practitioners of great capacity there is the
"perfect and sudden" method, but for those of lesser capacity
there are gradual methods.
The most popular segment of the seminar was the Sunday
morning discourse on repentance in Tien-tai, and by extension
in all of Mahayana Buddhism. Dr. Stevenson described both the
practice of repentance and the manifestations, both good and
bad, that can occur as karma is eliminated from the mind
Newsletter Table of