The Ox-Herding Pictures and the Path of Awakening

Dharma Talk by Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

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 Buddhist practice.

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 train.

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 happens.

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 life.

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 live. 

– 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 non-separation.


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.     ~