The Ox-Herding Pictures and
the Path of Awakening
Dharma Talk by Sensei Deirdre
Red Rocks Zen Circle Autumn 2019
Good morning everyone. This fall is our study text is going to be
the Ox-Herding Pictures. This morning I’d
like to provide an overview of this series, talk a little about why they have
been helpful for Zen practitioners for many centuries, and see why they can be
of value for us today.
The Ox-Herding pictures have
a long history in Asia. We could think
of them as an illustrated parable. There
are ten images, each with some text and a poem.
To begin to look at this teaching, we can start with the ox itself. In
an agrarian society like ancient China, an ox or water-buffalo was an extremely
important animal and an integral part of life, something everyone would be
familiar with. On another level, the ox
also came to be associated with the Absolute, with our Buddha-nature. There are a number of koans that deal with
this Ox, both in its physicality and also with additional levels of meaning
with the Emptiness or the Absolute.
Ox-herding, or taking care of the ox, came to be associated with
An early anecdote involving
this ox dates back to T’ang dynasty China, so back in the 7th or 8th
century. A monk was working in the
monastery kitchen, and the master came in and asked him what he was doing. The monk replied, “Just herding the
ox.” The master said, “How are
you herding the ox?” The monk said,
“Whenever the ox wanders off to eat grass when he should be working, I
rein him in and put him back to work.”
So the ox came to be a metaphor for the mind, which the ox-herder must
Over the centuries, a series
of images of this ox were created, along with some written text and poems, as a
way to talk about the steps in Zen training, and as a way to encourage our
practice. The images begin with the
ox-herder looking a bit lost and searching for the ox, through finding and then
taming the ox, and then to some further levels as well.
So when we first encounter
the images and the ten stages of ox-herding, one of the first things we want to
know is, where am I in these stages?
This is our American mind. Where
am I, how far up the list am I. But that
would be a little bit simplistic. It is
true that the ox-herding pictures show the course of the journey that we make
in our spiritual practice. But on
another level, the images are not linear.
We don’t move from Image 3 to Image 4, and go methodically up the
list. Instead, we want to see that any
of us, at any moment, can be anywhere along the curve. We can have twenty years of practice and find
ourselves, at times, at the very first image: where is this ox? So there’s no way it should be, it is just how
it is for us in each moment. None of us take up permanent residence at any of
these stages. My teacher used to encourage us to think of the Ox-Herding images
as a spiral that we continually move through.
One of the things I believe
you will especially enjoy are the images.
Over the last 1500 years there have been many images created of the
ox-herding series, both brushwork and woodblock carvings. The ones we are using for our own study, and
in the handout that will be available at the end of the day, are quite
striking. They are ink paintings created
by the contemporary Japanese Zen teacher Roshi Jikihara. They are charming and yet also very profound
in what they convey through subtle brushwork.
So the term
“ox-herding” may make this construct sound a bit exotic, but of
course in the West we also have our version of the hero’s spiritual journey,
which is what the ox-herder’s journey really is about. The Buddha’s own quest,
his archetypal journey, could also be seen through the lens of the ox-herding
pictures. The journey begins with dissatisfaction — with dukka, with suffering — and it begins with searching. There are obstacles and barriers. The hero comes to see or understand various
things. Finally she or he reaches the
culmination — though it may not be what it was she or he originally set out
after. And then, the hero returns. This
is ultimately our own journey of healing and reconnection.
In the beginning the
Ox-Herder is searching. But for
what? Part of the search is that we
don’t really know what we are searching for.
The text says “The ox has never really gone astray, so why search
for it? But having turned his back on his TrueNature, the ox-herder now can not
see it. Because of defilements he has
lost sight of the ox.” So the
ox-herder is seeking something, though he is not exactly sure what that
is. In many ways it is the like the koan
Mu. Our first koan. When we first begin to work with Mu it is
like being in a dark room looking for something, but you don’t know what it is that
you are looking for. Working with Mu, in
its own way, is not separate from the ox-herders journey.
So the ox-herder moves
through various phases: of searching for
the ox, seeing the footprints of the ox, starting to tame the wild ox …. how
quickly the ox wants to run off to eat wild grasses … and eventually,
peacefully riding the ox. Eventually the
separate concepts of ox and ox-herder fade away, there is just the experience. There is a capping phrase that says “no rider
above, no horse below”. Just the
experience. And importantly, in our
mahayana tradition, eventually returning into the marketplace, into the world,
to be of service.
So since the Ox-Herding
Pictures purport to show the spiritual journey towards enlightenment, one of
the questions that arises is what exactly is this enlightenment. First let me just say that the word
enlightenment can be used in different ways, and that is often confusing and
misleading. I personally prefer the word
“awakening” because it is the present tense and doesn’t imply a fixed
state, and it doesn’t imply that this state is the same for all people. Some of the koans will show an encounter
between master and monk, and will conclude with something that says “the
monk was enlightened.” I prefer
translations that say “The monk had an insight.” To me this is more realistic and true to what
We’ve heard enlightenment
celebrated in the zen teachings, and it often is described in such lofty terms
that it feels far away from us, from the mundane matters that we see preoccupy
our minds. But this is misleading. One of the Zen sutras says that “when you
walk the Way it is not near it is not far.”
What does it mean when something is not near and is not far? When we brush aside these relative terms,
there is only what is right here. This
is coming home to the Ox.
Also, from the way
enlightenment is referenced in the Zen teachings, we often feel it is a “thing”,
a state of consciousness that we will one day tap into. Like we’re climbing a mountain, and one day
we will find ourselves at the top and have the same view as all the enlightened
beings. But this too is misleading. It’s really important to remember that a
process of awakening is very personal and will be different for each one of us. We are each working with our own minds, our
own karma, our own way we experience the teachings and actualize them in our
Different streams of
Buddhism, and different teachers within the same lineages, often see
enlightened mind in different ways.
– For some Buddhists, it might
be an uprooting of the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion in the mind. So it is a purification process. This is not emphasized in our Zen way, which
is more about clear seeing than having a goal like purification.
– For others, it might be a
gradual but profound shift in identity, as we let go of the strong
identification with a fixed self and come to appreciate this more fluid self
that can open and be intimate with the whole world. Zen Master Dogen says that
to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be
awakened by the ten thousand things. In
other words, to be intimate when the ten thousand things. When we rest in
simple direct awareness, without the strong sense of a separate sense of “me”,
that is a moment of awakened presence, always available to us.
– Other teachings might emphasize
a deep experiencing of Absolute and Relative, of form and emptiness, of seeing
this true nature of things, and the transformative power this has on how we
– Still others might
emphasize a deep letting go, a surrendering of our agenda and our sense of
self, to allow ourselves to enter the flowing steam of life, of impermanence.
So all of these are ways we
can view this awakened state, and while we can talk about them separately, they
are really not separate, they are all present in each other and they all
include a dropping away of the strong sense of a separate self, a clear seeing
into the mind, and the opening of the heart that helps to connect us to all things
in an intimate way.
And always to remember,
awakened mind is not a fixed state.
There is no enlightened retirement, that we one day achieve something
and then we’ve got it for good, like a diploma on a wall. Zen is a life practice, it is always
happening in the present tense, and it is always about how we will meet
whatever arises. It has been said that
there are no awakened people, just awakened activity.
The teacher Jack Kornfield
uses this analogy: “Like the
particle-and-wave nature of light, awakened consciousness is experienced in a myriad
of beautiful ways.” And he gives
some wonderful examples I’d like to share with you.
Kornfield says this: “For Zen Master Suzuki Roshi,
enlightenment was expressed by being just where you are. For the Indian master Dipa Ma, a tiny woman
with a powerfully-trained mind, enlightenment was expressed as radiant
love. Mahasi Sayadaw, the Burmese
master, expressed enlightenment as emptiness — he exuded a quiet equanimity,
and was like space — transparent, nobody there. Just the opposite for the Thai Forest Master
Ajahn Jumnien — his Dharma is all-hours, non-stop, full of life and joy. There’s a sense of abundance in him, and
happiness pours out like a fountain — he expresses enlightenment as fullness. The Dalai Lama expresses his awakening as
compassionate blessing on all he meets.
Thich Naht Hahn expresses awakening as mindfulness — when he comes to
teach, the consciousness of everyone who sees him is transformed by seeing this
man simply walk, each step the entire universe.
As we watch him, we drop into the reality of the eternal present, the
place where we awaken. —- So enlightenment takes these myriad
forms. And it is not just for these
remarkable teachers. It is never far
away. It is freedom here and now, to be
tasted whenever you open to it.”
So when I came into Zen
practice, my ideas and concepts about this enlightenment that I kept hearing
about … they were pretty confused and idealistic in a naïve way. They were also deluded, in other words
showing a fundamental duality and separation, in that enlightenment seemed like
a thing, and a thing that I didn’t have and that I wanted to get. You can see
the duality in that — there’s a me over here, and wanting a thing over there,
something separate from me that I want.
This is exactly what the Ox parable begins with. This is also what Dogen says, in Genjokoan which we studied recently: “When you first seek dharma you imagine that
you are far away from its environs, but Dharma is already correctly
transmitted, you are immediately your original self.”
Here’s the Zen teacher Barry
Magid with some helpful observations about this: “We begin practice with this dichotomy that
we create in our minds between Buddha Way and Self. Practice is seen as a way to bring these
disparate things together, that there is something that we have been lacking
and now we’re going to find it. But in
fact Buddha Way and Self are inextricable.
Our understanding of each must undergo a transformation.” He goes on to say, “Realization isn’t
some change taking place privately inside our personal consciousness; it is
rather the experience of embeddedness in all of life, an embededness with no
beginning and no end, which continues endlessly.” So living this truth of intimacy, of
So each of us are walking our
own dharma path, although we also walk together as a sangha, supporting each
other. And each of our awakened minds will manifest in our own unique way. How liberating! And it is always moment to moment. Anyone of us can manifest a wise and kind
response to circumstances, based on non-separation and intimacy. Anyone of us can also manifest an unskillful
response, because no one is immune from the poisons of greed, anger and
ignorance. But we can say, with much
faith and confidence, that regular practice such as we are doing this morning
keeps us in touch with a clear mind and an open heart, and that’s the key.
And, this is what the Ox is
all about. It’s a way of giving a form to our spiritual path, to our
experience. We can take comfort and
inspiration that over the centuries, millions of people have followed the same
path, faced the same hurdles, felt lost, felt confused, and yet also had joyful
moments of finding the Ox, and riding the Ox home as we become more and more
intimate with ourselves and with all things.