Spiritual Glossary: Zen Ox Herding Pictures

This series of pictures represent the process of awakening as described in Zen Buddhism. They’re a teaching aid that gets a mention my novel, Addled, in Chapter 10 when Zoe Popper studies the drawings. Each image is a metaphor that reveals the internal stages of meditation, or how awakening works from the inside.

The original drawings and commentary are attributed to a 12th century Zen master called Kakuan Shien. But there are earlier versions taken from an old Taoist story about an ox and the oxherd. Kakuan updated this tale and created the verses that accompany each image.

Originally there were only five or eight pictures which ended with the circle of Oneness. Kakuan added two more pictures to make the classic ten we have now, showing the return to the world after realisation. This makes the teaching more complete and brings it back down to earth.

Illustrations from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

The version found in D.T. Suzuki’s Manual of Zen Buddhism has ten pictures but the verses are slightly different and the images show the ox changing colour as you progress through the series. The ox starts out black and slowly turns white, symbolising the gradual transformation of the mind. The series also ends with the empty circle. You can read the verses for these images here: Manual of Zen Buddhism (Sacred Texts)

There are many different versions and translations, but they all point to the same truth. The ox is the ultimate reality, Buddha nature, the ground of existence. The oxherd is the self – the small self, or ego – who starts out separate from the ox, but then slowly learns to see that the self and the True Self are one.

First you must find the ox and then catch and tame it. Then you befriend it and learn from it, only to discover its truth was yours all along. Buddha mind is your ordinary mind, and ordinary life becomes extraordinary. Ultimately, there’s nothing that’s not Buddha nature – and this is the realisation of enlightenment.

Enlightenment is called satori in Zen, and is the moment of realisation of your true nature. Satori happens in a flash of insight, but the process leading to it tends to progress through stages. These are shown in the pictures. But it’s important to remember that the path isn’t linear. You may cycle through the stages many times as your understanding grows and deepens. It’s more of a spiral path. You come to the same lessons over and over until you attain full realisation. The ox herding pictures dramatise this process and reveal that the ordinary self is the Buddha.

The pictures also show the misunderstanding at the heart of suffering: that the self and Buddha nature are two different things. The ox and the oxherd are separated at the start and slowly come together. But in reality the ox isn’t lost and you don’t really need to search for it because you are the ox! It’s the equivalent of looking for your glasses even though you’re already wearing them.

Of course, enlightenment and the realisation of emptiness and the true nature of the mind can’t be expressed in words or images. So the Ox Herding pictures are designed to point to a truth you must work to understand in your practice – not just meditating on your cushion, but also while going about your day.

Enlightenment isn’t about sitting around contemplating profound truths. It’s about how you act in every moment. The Ox Herding pictures are really about answering the question: who am I? If you can understand your true nature, then your actions will come from a deeper place. Instead of acting from the level of ego or the small self, you’ll be able to act from your Buddha nature. Then the path and the goal and how you act become one.

In this series we’ll look at each picture and explore what they mean, starting with: Seeking the Ox

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