The ox-herding pictures have been around for about 1,000 years. Sometimes there are ten in a set, sometimes five or six. However many, they’re typically understood to represent stages of development in practice en route to awakening, and beyond. There’s a difference worth noting between various sets of pictures. In some, the final image is of an enso, a Zen circle. In this version of the ox-herding pictures, the gradual development of Zen life and understanding is shown via a progressive whitening of the ox, ending in the disappearance of the ox entirely. In other versions, the last picture is different, based on the idea that concluding with an empty circle mistakes realizing and abiding in emptiness as the culmination of practice. This alternative and more widespread view is that realizing emptiness is a stage, but that the path culminates with a return to the everyday world. This perspective is most consistent with the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a part.
In any case, seeing the pictures as progressive stages of practice is the usual linear understanding, and the numbering of the pictures and the orderly progression of the ox’s coloration, from black to white, pulls for this kind of interpretation. Zen may have a wild side, but Buddhism as a whole seems to favor orderliness. Buddhism’s many numbered lists – Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, 108 Delusions, etc – exemplify this inclination. I think that a couple of thousand years ago, Buddhism was a form of mainstream science. You could say Buddha was a mystic, but there’s also a good case for Buddha as scientist, his own body and mind his laboratory. Buddha the scientist explored and studied the nature of suffering, consciousness, and freedom from suffering, finally arriving at a formula for a reliable, repeatable process. You could say we’re repeating his experiment here and now.
It’s interesting to question the linearity of the pictures. As a practitioner, should you expect to move through all these stages in order? Are there really exactly ten? Is each stage entirely distinct from what comes before and after? When you reach stage five, have you left stage four behind forever? Maybe, but not necessarily. It’s also useful to see them as mirrors. Look at your practice in each and see if you recognize yourself. When I was getting ready to be shuso – head student – I had to make-up an invitation to the ceremony. I made one up using the third picture – “In harness” – as an illustration on the front. When I showed it to my teacher, Sojun Roshi, he told me to use the second picture – “Discipline begun.” But I wanted to be a number three. I thought I was a number three, but my teacher demoted me to number two. At the time, I was sure he was wrong, but I accepted his direction. In retrospect, he was right, even though I didn’t like it at the time.
The point of thinking of the pictures as mirrors is not to admire yourself or to compare yourself to anyone else. That’s what I was doing. “Shuso, and only a 2??!!” And this is a hazard that comes with of this business of “stages;” the mirror turns into a place of judgment, of affirmation or rejection, not illumination and reflection. I have an old friend who once told me he had a foolproof diet that allowed you to eat as much as you want of whatever you want as often as you want, with only one requirement. You must always eat in the nude in front of a full-length mirror. Mirrors can be very helpful when they are allowed to reflect what’s actually in front of them.
Another alternative to viewing the pictures as a linear progression is to consider that an individual might experience some back and forth between stages. For example, the sense of being lost portrayed in the first picture may recur over time. As might any of the stages or conditions represented by the the pictures. Many accounts of Zen awakening suggest that once fully awakened, all delusion is cut, the mind is free from clinging, the ego is in its proper place, and the awakened person functions with complete freedom and clarity. While this is an appealing idea, I am skeptical, as I’ve said many times before. Awakening is transformative, but one goes on for a whole life working to deepen awakening and integrate it into one’s life. Human being are complex animals and rarely move in straight lines; even the indelible line from birth to death is wavy in its way. So if you find yourself “re-cycling” through some passages in your practice that you thought you’d left behind for good, don’t make too much of it. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
The first picture is called “SEARCHING FOR THE OX.” Here’s a classic commentary:
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.
And here is a classic poem with the picture that reads:
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.
This is not so hard to understand if you focus on key words in the passage: ideas of right and wrong, desire for gain and fear of loss, lost, searching, despair, knows not. Pretty dramatic. The image is not of a boy (or girl) who’s not quite sure, who’s scratching her head thinking, hmmmm. It is someone whose sense of something missing is urgent, urgent enough to fuel a search. “Something is missing and I need to find it.” Or, if the “it” over-objectifies the search, “I’ve lost my bearings. I need to know where I am, to find home.” Either way, there’s a sense of strong intention even in the midst of being lost, of not knowing.
And the commentary that precedes the poem is also pretty clear about the causes of the predicament. It’s not that something is actually missing; it’s that the subject has lost track of it by seeking outside herself . Note the ending of the poem: “He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple-woods.” One way to read this is that the seeker’s attention is focused in the wrong direction, turned outward and relying on the senses, not turned inward relying on the illlumination of the mind. Sometimes, the singing of the cicadas is refered to as “the empty shrilling,” as in this Waka poem:
The deep hills,
No sight of the ox.
Just the empty
Shrilling of the cicadas.
I’m certain this feeling is something you have felt or feel personally, otherwise you wouldn’t be here wasting a perfectly good Saturday morning staring at a wall. This first picture is about the beginning of practice, which inevitably involves some discomfort. There are many words for this discomfort and it arises differently for each person. In one case, it may be what’s known as “existential doubt,” that persistent uncertainty about what life means or whether it has any meaning at all. In another case, it may be very painful, rooted in profound personal loss. A death or a grave illness. What felt like a reliable world no longer does. The ground beneath your feet is unsteady, even gone. For me, it was some combination of standard issue teenage alienation, existential angst, and inability to find compeling answers in anything I read until I came across Zen stories. Those stories intensified my uncomfortable feeling of not knowing something important while at the same time leaving me with an instinct that the central characters in the stories had somehow grasped whatever it was I hadn’t.
Whatever your experience, this first picture is about the arising of bodhicitta—often referred to as “the mind that seeks the way,” and the turning to practice. As I’ve said before, this way of translating bodhicitta can be problematic, if the way is capital T The and capital W Way. I prefer to think of it as the arising of an intention to find clarity, or an intention to get to the bottom of things, or an intention to find deeper understanding, or an intention to find freedom, or an intention to find well-being. In other words, searching for the ox is not simply about feeling lost and confused and dissatisfied. It goes beyond that to the stirring of intention to do something about it. A sense of purpose arises. An aspiration. And this purpose and aspiration bring you to some kind of deliberate practice, like what we are undertaking here together. So in summary, this first stage is first of all about a feeling of separation, loss, or confusion….something in that general area, but the feeling is actually a kind of blessing, a waking-up to the need to look, to find “home.” And the need becomes an intention (which can also take the form of a formal vow), and the intention leads to a shift. This shift is a kind of letting go of reliance on one path and turning to another, in our case to the path of Zen practice.
I would like to underline a point I made earlier, that the stages may not be a strict linear progression. It may be a series of cycles. Searching, for example, is not necessarily something limited to the beginning of practice and left forever behind with an awakening experience. In preparing to talk about the Oxherding Pictures, I read some comments on the pictures by Yamada Mumon Roshi. Mumon Roshi was one of the most highly regarded Japanese Zen masters of the 20th century. The current Zen master Harada Shodo Roshi is one of his dharma heirs and also much respected. In the foreward to Mumon Roshi’s commentaries one of his students describes him as follows:
“…one who lives each gesture and every moment beyond ego…clear of all attachment to any desires…beyond the need to make any further conscious efforts to let go of ego…thoroughly…selfless…”
I have little doubt that Mumon Roshi was a wonderful teacher and a highly refined human being. Still, I am uneasy about this projection of an ideal of absolute perfection. Mumon Roshi was chief abbot of Myoshinji, the head Rinzai temple in Kyoto. His teacher was Seki Seisetsu (1877 – 1945), also a highly regarded Zen Master but, acccording to a piece on www.zenforuminternational.org, also a war champion. This characterization is based on references to Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War, and/or a book entitled, The Rape of Nanking. Apparently, Seitetsu authored a book promoting Zen and Bushido, the way of the warrior. Just before the fall of Nanking, Seisetsu went on national radio to say:
‘Showing the utmost loyalty to the emperor is identical with engaging in the religious practice of Mahayana Buddhism. This is because Mahayana Buddhism is identical with the law of the sovereign.’
He then called for the ‘extermination of the red devils’ (Communists) in Japan and in China and took this message to the battlefield, visiting the Chinese front in 1938. Throughout the war years, Mumon accomopanied his master on such military trips and editing his writings. Does this make Mumon an advocate for war and killing? According to the article, after the war and Seisetu’s death, Mumon began to express sorrow about his participation in the war.
‘He told me that nothing he could ever do could make up for his complicity,’ Harada says. ‘Everywhere he went, he talked about peace. He travelled to many places where Japan had caused suffering – Guam, Borneo, the Philippines – to talk about peace.’
To me, this is an example of returning to “searching for the ox.” No matter how developed we may be, no matter how deep our practice (and I assume Mumon was a deep, sincere, developed Zen practitioner during his visits to the troops with his master), there is always the prospect of losing one’s way. The important thing is to recognize what is going on and begin again to search. There’s no shame in that. The shame is in denying we’ve gotten lost.
Notes for a talk given at Zen Center of Fresno