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,
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 by D.T. Suzuki; it is a book in the public domain.
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
Sitting in silence
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. It is clearly related to tratak in yoga. 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.
With his horns fiercely projected in the air the beast snorts,
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!
2. Discipline Begun
I am in possession of a straw rope, and I pass it through his nose,
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;
3. In Harness
Gradually getting into harness the beast is now content to be led by the nose,
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;
4. Faced Round
After long days of training the result begins to tell and the beast is faced round,
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:
Under the green willow tree and by the ancient mountain stream,
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,
On the verdant field the beast contentedly lies idling his time away,
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:
7. Laissez Faire
The spring stream in the evening sun flows languidly along the willow-lined bank,
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,
8. All Forgotten
The beast all in white now is surrounded by the white clouds,
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:
9. The Solitary Moon
Nowhere is the beast, and the oxherd is master of his time,
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!
10. Both Vanished
Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left,
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;
Neat and Delightful MeditationThe 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.