The Zen Ox-Herding Pictures

By Ruben Habito

Today we begin a new series of teishos or dharma presentations that I would like to offer as a series. For our subject matter I would like to address what in the Zen tradition is called "The Ten Oxherding Pictures." This 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.

Today I will give a general introduction, summarizing each of the ten so that we have a broad picture. I'd like to begin by recalling that a teisho, a Japanese term that we are employing, is not to be construed as a lecture or as an intellectual explanation. As the Chinese/Japanese characters imply, it is an offering (tei), that is recited (sho), in the context of Zen practice. It is meant to highlight one of the four cardinal precepts of Zen, namely, "pointing directly to the human mind." The four cardinal principles of Zen are:

And I'd like to refer you to the book, Healing Breath, in the second and third chapters, which also give some further background explanation.

The teisho deals mainly with the third; namely, it points directly to our human mind, that is, the concrete situation where each practitioner is. So its intent is really to address each individual, at the heart. Ideally speaking, it should be offered one to one. But since we are here together as a group, we offer it as such, rather than repeating the same things over and over in one-to-one meetings (dokusan). The hope is that although there are different stages in the journey for each one, there will be at least a set of offerings that could be nourishing or that could serve as a pointer for each of the practitioners here present.

A talk in the Zen context, which we also call a dharma talk, is given with that pre-supposition that it is a communication from heart to heart, in the process of awakening to the truth, in the process of discovering the dharma. The term dharma, which is now employed in English also, is sometimes translated as truth, sometimes translated as "that which is" or sometimes it is translated as "the way." But just to look at the etymology, "dharma" comes from the sanskrit "dhr." This verb dhr means "to hold" or "to sustain," and the noun form becomes dharma, which means, "that which sustains everything as it is" or "that which makes everything in this universe what it is." So we can translate this word dharma as "the truth of things," or "that which makes everything just what it is." So we look at each and everyone of us here today and we can see that we are the body of that dharma: the dharma is all of us. We are all part of this whole interconnected set of phenomena which we call the universe. That is what a dharma talk is all about: things, just as they are. We try to enrich people's lives to let everyone see that we are all intertwined, and we are trying to open our eyes to the dharma in us, or the dharma as us. Please don't take it as simply a set of mental or intellectual explanations. That is why we discourage note-taking. That is because it is not meant for the mind or the intellect alone, but instead it points directly at one's human core. Each one is invited to listen in a way that one keeps asking the question that motivates each one to practice: "Who am I?" "What is reality?" That is the underlying dynamism that we would like to keep in mind as we listen to a teisho.

And so, I begin. These teishos are not meant for public or general distribution but are directed to those of us who are practicing in the context described. They are not something to be listened to out of curiosity or just to learn new ideas, but precisely as an offering to point to where you are in your practice.

We will look at the ten oxherding pictures precisely to help us mirror where we are in our practice. As we do so, in one or other of these stages, we may have a sense of recognition- "That's it! That's what I am!" And with such a recognition, 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.

But one other preliminary point in looking at these ten oxherding pictures is to realize that they are "stages" not in the sense that the latter stages are superior to the earlier stages. We see them precisely as an invitation to take a full circle. They are invitations to us to see where we are in the circle. But this should not lead us to think, "Ah, I'm better than that one because I am in number six and that other person is just in number three!" So we are not to see it in a way that bolsters our ego. On the other hand, we need not demean ourself and say, "Oh, I'm only in number two, whereas others may be in number six or number seven." And so on. We are invited to see it as a full circle, where we are in a community together, and we are finding our place in this community in a unique and irreplaceable way.

So with that 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 of the human hand who wrote it. That itself, with all the contours, is supposed to be the manifestation of perfection, not the mathematically correct figure where every point in the circle is equidistant from the center. The circle is drawn by a human hand, with a brush, and is perfect just as it is. And 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 space, to infinity.

With that in the background, we can look at the circle, as an invitation for us to ask, "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 of infinite?" And 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-is the picture of our true self. The first picture depicts a little child who is supposed to be perplexed, or is searching for something. "In the beginning, suddenly emerged from confusion." Another description of this same first picture of a child just beginning to open its eyes and wonder about things is the "the awakening of the fact." So it is the first stage in the awakening process asking the question: "What's this all about?"

This is already a very significant step. Before the first stage there is already a kind of awakening, namely, a mind that begins asking questions. One becomes aware that one is perplexed in 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 have 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 living. We may have gotten married and have started a family, and so on, then suddenly, at some point in our lives, we begin to ask the big questions. It may come when we are thirty or forty or even fifty. 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 some form of practice that will enable us to pursue those questions. I will describe this more fully in the next talk.

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: "Oh, there must be something that makes this life worth living, so let me see what it is." 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 in our search.

The third stage is the sighting of the ox. Perhaps we may not yet see the whole ox, but we may glimpse its tail, or some part of the ox, that makes us sure that the ox is certainly there. But yet we haven't seen it fully yet. The glimpse just whets our appetite, and leads us to go further. In the Zen tradition, this third stage is known as the initial opening, or kensho 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. And so for those of us who may have had a new experience like this, so suddenly, coming to us like this, we may say, "Now I've got it! Now, I have this kensho and so I'm fully in the Zen light!"

Well, I've got news for you: that is just the beginning of it. The sighting of it may still relapse into a memory and therefore, well, if it becomes just an ego trip ("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 talks about the ox forgotten: leaving the child to simply sit there and meditate deeply. So 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" and so on. We are home and we don't need to think about looking for something else. We are comfortable 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 there. In some versions, of the oxherding pictures, this eighth stage is given as the last stage. The ten stage version, however, has a subtlety that we are also invited to consider.

The ninth stage is described as a return to the forest. Now, after having forgotten both the object and the subject, what appears? There's a bamboo shoot, there is a plum blossom, a rock beside a gently flowing stream. Further than that we don't see. 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.

But 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 diety of happiness and mirth came to be identified with the figure of the Buddha. So 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. We transcend our struggles not by escaping them, but by plunging ourselves right into them with a new sense of freedom and a sense of humor and a sense of acceptance.

We will develop each of these stages with greater detail later. I have here tried to offer a summary of the ten oxherding pictures in a way that may help us realize there are different stages along the way, and that we need not get stuck on any particular stage saying, "There now I am complete." But 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-keep returning to that child in us, that is truly the one who can partake of the gifts of being. 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. There is no sense putting on airs, thinking, "Now I've advanced along the path." Yet again, we need not downplay our practice, thinking, "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. And yet, 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 continual process of emptying.

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