Zen Ox Herding 4: Catching the Ox

He must tightly grasp the rope and not let it go,

for the Ox still has unhealthy tendencies.

Now it charges up to the highlands,

now it loiters in a misty ravine.

This stage of the path is all about discipline. You’ve finally discovered the truth about your Buddha Nature. It’s been hidden inside you all along, but you can’t control it. All your old conditioning, bad habits and, let’s face it, laziness, will work against you now. You have to work hard to maintain the vision of truth you’ve glimpsed. This is when your spiritual practice truly begins.

Catching the ox is about how hard you have to work to gain mastery of your true nature. It’s only when you start disciplining the mind (or trying to) that you realise how crazy you are! Your mind is constantly wandering off and getting distracted. You have to work hard to focus and develop discipline.

You may have the ox by the nose but the ox is definitely in charge – pulling you around and leading you a merry dance. You can even slip back a step: the rope slides out of your hand and the ox wanders off and disappears, and you’re back to searching again.

You start to see how far from your goal you are and how much work you need to do. Now that you understand what’s at stake and the size of the task at hand, you’ll either flake out and give up, or redouble your efforts. Your meditation practice takes on greater meaning. You push yourself harder, sit for longer, and begin to apply the lessons to every area of your life. If you don’t, the ox might escape. And who knows if you’ll find him again.

This stage is really about developing the right relationship to your own mind and to your True Self. You need to realise that the truth is always there and that struggling to see it only pushes it further away. The power of the ox is really your own power, and by trying to force the issue you’re actually fighting against yourself.

Next: Taming the Ox

Painting by Jikihara Gyokusei and Verse by Kuoan Shiyuan

Read whole series here