Zen Ox Herding 5: Taming the Ox

He must hold the nose-rope tight

and not allow the Ox to roam,

lest off to muddy haunts it should stray.

Properly tended, it becomes clean and gentle.

Untethered, it willingly follows its master.

You have successfully caught the ox of your Buddha nature, but there’s still work to be done. Discipline is still needed: you must keep hold of the ox and put the dharma into practise so you can tame your mind.

When you practice you feel more free and compassionate, but it only takes one tiny thing to go wrong, one bad day, and your old conditioning will kick back in. You may start to experience spontaneous joy and a sense of peace, but difficult emotions can still catch you by surprise and throw you off track.

There are many things that will help at this stage: meditation, reading spiritual teachings, listening to dharma talks, chanting, mantras, prayer, and finding fellow travellers or a community of like-minded friends all searching for their inner ox.

Now that your mind is more disciplined you may be more compassionate and thoughtful from day to day, but maintaining that calm can be a struggle. You can’t relax because the ox could wander off again. In fact, he often does, and the stages of catching and taming the ox can alternate back and forth until you get the hang of it. Taming the mind takes a long time – even a lifetime.

At this stage, the separation between your small self or ego, and the True Self or Buddha nature, is beginning to diminish. It may seem like you’ve attained some mastery over the ox – you have him by the nose and he follows you happily – but you’re still two separate beings. You’re still seeing your Buddha nature as different to your ordinary mind. This is where the struggle comes from.

If you see yourself as separate from your true nature then you’ll try to act on it from outside and make your mind be still. This is impossible so you’ll never succeed. But that’s okay because your true nature is naturally still. You don’t need to struggle. Everything is as it is. You can let it be, and let your mind be, and the disturbances and ripples in the water will slowly disappear.

Next: Riding the Ox Home

Painting by Jikihara Gyokusei and Verse by Kuoan Shiyuan

Read whole series here