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The Ox-herding Pictures of Zen

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Good Herding

Oxherding picture. Woodblock by Kakuan.
Woodblock by Kakuan
The Ox Herding Pictures is a symbolic "cartoon strip". They are a series of woodcuts and accompanying short poems about development in meditation. The pictures first appeared in their present form in the 1100s. The original poems are by the Chinese Zen master Kakuan from the 1100s. The illustrations and poems together are intended to illustrate stages of progress toward and into great perfection. "Bull" and "ox" are used alternately. In some translations it is bull, in others (wild) ox. And the bull stands for dhyana (meditation). There are many forms of meditation, many ways of handling or herding such a bull. There is also research on some common and researched methods. The method of [◦"gentle herding", TM, is best among those more or less methodically tested.

More correctly, possibly: The author of these pictures is said to be a Zen master of the Sung Dynasty, known as Kakuan Shi-en (Kuo-an Shih-yuan). He belonged to the Rinzai school of Zen (Chan). He was not the first to illustrate stages of Zen by means of pictures, though, for he refers to another Zen master called Seikyo (Ching-chu) who made use of the ox to explain his Zen teaching. In Seikyo's case the gradual development of the Zen life was indicated by a progressive whitening, and there were only five pictures, instead of ten as by Kakuan.

According to a commentator of Kakuan's pictures, there is another series of the oxherding pictures by a Zen master called Jitoku Ki (Tzu-te Hui), who designed six pictures. Jitoku's ox grows whiter than Seikyo's, and in Kakuan's conception there is no whitening process. And where Seikyo's strip ends, Jikotu tells:

Even beyond the ultimate limits there extends a passageway,
Whereby he comes back among the six realms of existence;
Every worldly affair is a Buddhist work,
And wherever he goes he finds his home air;
Like a gem he stands out even in the mud,
Like pure gold he shines even in the furnace;
Along the endless road [of birth and death] he walks sufficient unto himself,
In whatever associations he is found he moves leisurely unattached.

In Japan Kakuan's Ten Pictures were widely circulated. But in China the Seikyo and Jitoku series of pictures were in vogue. Also, a poem by a Pu-ming comes along with each of the ten pictures.

Kakuan's pictures were reproduced by Shubun, a Zen priest of the 1400s. The original pictures are preserved at Shokokuji, Kyoto. He was one of the greatest painters in black and white in the Ashikaga period.

Thus, what has come down to us is a series of pictures, poems and prose. Each picture has its commentary in prose and verse. In the strip, a student ventures into the wilderness in his search for the bull (or ox; which is a metaphor for enlightenment, or the true self, or simply a regular human being). She (or he) keeps searching and eventually finds footprints (traces). When she sees the bull for the first time she is amazed. Yet she has to work hard to bring it under control. Eventually she is enlightened and returns to the world.

The pictures made use of in the following, are by Shubun from the 1400s. They appear in the Manual of Zen Buddhism [Mz] by D.T. Suzuki, a book that is in the public domain. - TK

NOTE: Do not even try to whip and subdue your true Self or the Enlightenment side of yourself deep inside. Harshness and beating is ugly, and far from the right way. The metaphor halts in this very important side to inward development.

Overview of the ten pictures

  1. In Search of the Bull (aimless searching, only the sound of cicadas)
  2. Discovery of the Footprints (a path to follow)
  3. Perceiving the Bull (but its rear, not its head)
  4. Catching the Bull (discipline required)
  5. Taming the Bull (the bull becomes gentle and obeyant)
  6. Riding the Bull Home (great joy)
  7. The Bull Transcended (once home, the bull is forgotten, stillness)
  8. Both Bull and a personal Self Transcended (all forgotten, seemingly)
  9. Reaching the Source (unconcern and the sound of cicadas)
  10. Return to Society (crowded marketplace; mingling with someothers)

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Herding the Bull

Sitting in silence
unmoving eyes facing a white wall
for about half an hour three times a day
should pay well in time. Does it?

Yes, according to EEG studies of Zen monks [Link]

Sitting just like the poem above tells - wall-gazing - is one of the ways people do Zen. Zen comes from the Chinese word Ch'en, which comes from the Sanskrit term dhyana, which is deep meditation, or contemplation.

Such a special sort of sitting is called zazen in Japanese. There are many other ways of sitting too, in Zen also. Kigen Dogen (1200-53) defines Zen as sitting in contemplation: "Zen is zasen, and zazen is Zen" is the sum and substance of most Zen sittings we know of.

With fit training many things can be mastered.

The following pictures and aligned text are from the Manual of Zen Buddhism [Mz] by the Buddhist scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), who edited and translated it into English. Suzuki was a professor in philosophy at Otani University, Kyoto, and also taught at Columbia University.

Contained in the work is the series of allegorical paintings below. Two versions are fused here; the painting and the first verse form a unit, and the rest another unit in Suzuki's book.

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Ten Ox-Herding Pictures

1. Undisciplined

OX-HERDING PICTURE

With his horns fiercely projected in the air the beast snorts,
Madly running over the mountain paths, farther and farther he goes astray!
A dark cloud is spread across the entrance of the valley,
And who knows how much of the fine fresh herb is trampled under his wild hoofs!

Searching for the Bull. The beast has never gone astray, and what is the use of searching for him? The reason why the oxherd is not on intimate terms with him is because the oxherd himself has violated his own inmost nature. The beast is lost, for the oxherd has himself been led out of the way through his deluding senses. His home is receding farther away from him, and byways and crossways are ever confused. Desire for gain and fear of loss burn like fire; ideas of right and wrong shoot up like a phalanx.

Alone in the wilderness, lost in the jungle, the boy is searching, searching!
The swelling waters, the far-away mountains, and the unending path;
Exhausted and in despair, he knows not where to go,
He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple-woods.

2. Discipline Begun

OX-HERDING PICTURE

I am in possession of a straw rope, and I pass it through his nose,
For once he makes a frantic attempt to run away, but he is severely whipped and whipped;
The beast resists the training with all the power there is in a nature wild and ungoverned,
But the rustic oxherd never relaxes his pulling tether and ever-ready whip.

Seeing the Traces. By the aid of the sutras and by inquiring into the doctrines, he has come to understand something, he has found the traces. He now knows that vessels, however varied, are all of gold, and that the objective world is a reflection of the Self. Yet, he is unable to distinguish what is good from what is not, his mind is still confused as to truth and falsehood. As he has not yet entered the gate, he is provisionally said to have noticed the traces.

By the stream and under the trees, scattered are the traces of the lost;
The sweet-scented grasses are growing thick--did he find the way?
However remote over the hills and far away the beast may wander,
His nose reaches the heavens and none can conceal it.

3. In Harness

OX-HERDING PICTURE

Gradually getting into harness the beast is now content to be led by the nose,
Crossing the stream, walking along the mountain path, he follows every step of the leader;
The leader holds the rope tightly in his hand never letting it go,
All day long he is on the alert almost unconscious of what fatigue is.

Seeing the Bull. The boy finds the way by the sound he hears; he sees thereby into the origin of things, and all his senses are in harmonious order. In all his activities, it is manifestly present. It is like the salt in water and the glue in colour. [It is there though not distinguishable as an individual entity.] When the eye is properly directed, he will find that it is no other than himself,

On a yonder branch perches a nightingale cheerfully singing;
The sun is warm, and a soothing breeze blows, on the bank the willows are green;
The bull is there all by himself, nowhere is he to hide himself;
The splendid head decorated with stately horns what painter can reproduce him?

4. Faced Round

OX-HERDING PICTURE

After long days of training the result begins to tell and the beast is faced round,
A nature so wild and ungoverned is finally broken, he has become gentler;
But the tender has not yet given him his full confidence,
He still keeps his straw rope with which the ox is now tied to a tree.

Catching the Bull. Long lost in the wilderness, the boy has at last found the ox and his hands are on him. But, owing to the overwhelming pressure of the outside world, the ox is hard to keep under control. He constantly longs for the old sweet-scented field. The wild nature is still unruly, and altogether refuses to be broken. If the oxherd wishes to see the ox completely in harmony with himself, he has surely to use the whip freely.

With the energy of his whole being, the boy has at last taken hold of the ox:
But how wild his will, how ungovernable his power!
At times he struts up a plateau,
When lo! he is lost again in a misty unpenetrable mountain-pass.

5. Tamed

OX-HERDING PICTURE

Under the green willow tree and by the ancient mountain stream,
The ox is set at liberty to pursue his own pleasures;
At the eventide when a grey mist descends on the pasture,
The boy wends his homeward way with the animal quietly following.

Herding the Bull. When a thought moves, another follows, and then another-an endless train of thoughts is thus awakened. Through enlightenment all this turns into truth; but falsehood asserts itself when confusion prevails. Things oppress us not because of an objective world, but because of a self-deceiving mind. Do not let the nose-string loose, hold it tight, and allow no vacillation.

The boy is not to separate himself with his whip and tether,
Lest the animal should wander away into a world of defilements;
When the ox is properly tended to, he will grow pure and docile;
Without a chain, nothing binding, he will by himself follow the oxherd.

6. Unimpeded

OX-HERDING PICTURE

On the verdant field the beast contentedly lies idling his time away,
No whip is needed now, nor any kind of restraint;
The boy too sits leisurely under the pine tree,
Playing a tune of peace, overflowing with joy.

Coming Home on the Bull's Back. The struggle is over; the man is no more concerned with gain and loss. He hums a rustic tune of the woodman, he sings simple songs of the village-boy. Saddling himself on the ox's back, his eyes are fixed on things not of the earth, earthy. Even if he is called, he will not turn his head; however enticed he will no more be kept back.

Riding on the animal, he leisurely wends his way home:
Enveloped in the evening mist, how tunefully the flute vanishes away!
Singing a ditty, beating time, his heart is filled with a joy indescribable!
That he is now one of those who know, need it be told? .

7. Laissez Faire

OX-HERDING PICTURE

The spring stream in the evening sun flows languidly along the willow-lined bank,
In the hazy atmosphere the meadow grass is seen growing thick;
When hungry he grazes, when thirsty he quaffs, as time sweetly slides,
While the boy on the rock dozes for hours not noticing anything that goes on about him.

The Bull Forgotten, Leaving the Man Alone. The dharmas are one and the ox is symbolic. When you know that what you need is not the snare or set-net but the hare or fish, it is like gold separated from the dross, it is like the moon rising out of the clouds. The one ray of light serene and penetrating shines even before days of creation.

Riding on the animal, he is at last back in his home,
Where lo! the ox is no more; the man alone sits serenely.
Though the red sun is high up in the sky, he is still quietly dreaming,
Under a straw-thatched roof are his whip and rope idly lying.

8. All Forgotten

OX-HERDING PICTURE

The beast all in white now is surrounded by the white clouds,
The man is perfectly at his ease and care-free, so is his companion;
The white clouds penetrated by the moon-light cast their white shadows below,
The white clouds and the bright moon-light-each following its course of movement.

The Bull and the Man Both Gone out of Sight. All confusion is set aside, and serenity alone prevails; even the idea of holiness does not obtain. He does not linger about where the Buddha is, and as to where there is no Buddha he speedily passes by. When there exists no form of dualism, even a thousand-eyed one fails to detect a loop-hole. A holiness before which birds offer flowers is but a farce.

All is empty-the whip, the rope, the man, and the ox:
Who can ever survey the vastness of heaven?
Over the furnace burning ablaze, not a flake of snow can fall:
When this state of things obtains, manifest is the spirit of the ancient master.

9. The Solitary Moon

OX-HERDING PICTURE

Nowhere is the beast, and the oxherd is master of his time,
He is a solitary cloud wafting lightly along the mountain peaks;
Clapping his hands he sings joyfully in the moon-light,
But remember a last wall is still left barring his homeward walk.

Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source. From the very beginning, pure and immaculate, the man has never been affected by defilement. He watches the growth of things, while himself abiding in the immovable serenity of nonassertion. He does not identify himself with the maya-like transformations [that are going on about him], nor has he any use of himself [which is artificiality]. The waters are blue, the mountains are green; sitting alone, he observes things undergoing changes.

To return to the Origin, to be back at the Source--already a false step this!
Far better it is to stay at home, blind and deaf, and without much ado;
Sitting in the hut, he takes no cognisance of things outside,
Behold the streams flowing-whither nobody knows; and the flowers vividly red-for whom are they?

10. Both Vanished

OX-HERDING PICTURE

Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left,
The bright moon-light is empty and shadowless with all the ten-thousand objects in it;
If anyone should ask the meaning of this,
Behold the lilies of the field and its fresh sweet-scented verdure.

Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands. His thatched cottage gate is closed, and even the wisest know him not. No glimpses of his inner life are to be caught; for he goes on his own way without following the steps of the ancient sages. Carrying a gourd he goes out into the market, leaning against a staff he comes home. He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers, he and they are all converted into Buddhas.

Bare-chested and bare-footed, he comes out into the market-place;
Daubed with mud and ashes, how broadly he smiles!
There is no need for the miraculous power of the gods,
For he touches, and lo! the dead trees are in full bloom.

Neat and Delightful Meditation

The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures in several versions is just an allegory after all, and not the Real Thing.

Transcendental Meditation (TM) is handy and delightful in itself, and is warmly recommended. One should not depend on harsh training. Have nothing of it.

MAHAYANA COLLECTION
Oxherding Pictures, MahayanaMahayana, END MATTER

Oxherding Pictures, MahayanaMahayana, LITERATURE  

Mz: Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Manual of Zen Buddhism. Kyoto: Eastern Buddhist Society, 1935. Online.

Zf: Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, updated 1997.

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