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Good Herding

Good herding is gentle and firm. Whipping good bulls and folks is not fit.

Oxherding picture. Woodblock by Kakuan.
Woodblock by Kakuan

Herding the bull (ox) is about dhyana (meditation), and the famous Ox Herding Pictures is a symbolic "cartoon strip" about it. The illustrations and poems together are intended to illustrate stages of progress toward and into great perfection.

The "strip" first appeared in its present form in the 1100s CE. The original poems are by Kakuan Shi-en (Kuo-an Shih-yuan). They show meditation levels reckoned with in Chinese Zen in the 1100s, during the Sung Dynasty. Kakuan adhered to the Chan (Zen) school that was later known as Rinzai Zen in Japan.

Kakuan 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 just 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, while in Kakuan's conception there is no whitening process. 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.

Each picture of Kakuin 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 to hold on to it. Eventually she is enlightened - If she returns to life, Jikotu tells how it goes.

Herding the Bull

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

Does it? Yes, for some it does, according to EEG studies [Link]

Sitting just like the poem above tells - wall-gazing - is one of the ways to do Zen as Bodhidharma tells.

Dogen on sitting meditation

Eihei Dogen (1200–53) writes (with a mind and body that is not dropped away at the time):

Stop the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing after talk; study the backward step of turning the light and shining it back. Body and mind will drop away of themselves, and your original face will appear. If you want such a state, urgently work at such a state. (Bielefeldt 1988, 176)

Once you have settled your posture . . . Whenever a thought occurs, be aware of it . . . If you remain for a long period forgetful of objects, you will naturally become u[n]ified. This is the essential art of zazen. Zazen . . . is the dharma gate of great ease and joy. (Ib. 181)

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and arise calmly; do not be hasty or rough. . . . (Ib. 183)

Promptly take the right way, which points directly at reality . . . Just directly open your own treasure store and use it as you will. (Ib. 187)

The original face is the mind's essence. Enlightenment is called seeing the original face, it is explained in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. (Evans-Wentz 1967:xl)

The treasure store is at the end of the line, and getting it to open is through the developing art of dhyana, meditation, Dogen says.


Oxherding Pictures, Ten Bulls, Zen, Mahayana Buddhism, Literature  

Bielefeldt, Carl. 1988. Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Evans-Wentz, W. Y. ed. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University, 1967. ⍽▢⍽ The third edition from 2000 contains a new foreword.

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

Reps, Paul. 1997. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Reprint ed. London: Arcana.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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