Zen Ox-herding 6: Riding the Ox Home

Riding free as air he buoyantly comes home

through evening mists in wide straw-hat and cape.

Wherever he may go he creates a fresh breeze,

while in his heart profound tranquillity prevails.

This Ox requires not a blade of grass.

Now you’re starting to get the hang of this awakening business – but don’t get cocky! The path may have become easier but you’re not enlightened yet. Your discipline has paid off and you’re happy riding the ox, playing a joyful tune on your flute. Old anxieties and fears no longer trouble you. You’ve overcome your conditioning and are able to freely express yourself.

This stage is more relaxed. The ox doesn’t need to be tied up – he’ll happily follow and let you ride on his back. The small self and Buddha nature are almost one now: the oxherd rides the ox. This represents a harmonious relationship with your deeper mind where actions become effortless. You’re carried along by your true nature. Life begins to flow.

It’s also possible to fall into this stage spontaneously and many people do, whether they’re on the spiritual path or not. You can get into a flow state of mind when you’re being creative: writing, creating art, playing music, and so on, or when playing sports, for example. Your sense of yourself falls away and you become absorbed in the activity and lose track of time. Your actions seem to be perfectly timed, as if guided by a deeper intelligence, because your ego has taken a back seat.

This is an early stage of mastery. Creativity and joy may surge now, and life will seem more tranquil, but there’s a warning to be heeded. Anadi explains:

“The stage of riding the bull can be seen either as a high achievement or as a pitfall. Me and I am have been unified at last, but their relationship has not reached its final depth. Me still does not fully know who it is, and yet it may be content with the relative peace of having mastered the ox. However, because me has not met itself fully, it cannot surrender fully. Not knowing itself to its final depth, it may not recognise the suffering of still being separated from the beloved.”

The language here is slightly different: ‘me’ is the small self or ordinary mind, while ‘I am’ is the True Self or Buddha nature. You can see how easy it would be to get stuck at this stage and even believe that you’ve made it and that you’re enlightened. This kind of faulty thinking could lead you to fall off the ox – then you have to go back to catching and taming him all over again.

You may not need to make much of a conscious effort to practice now but don’t lose your focus – you’re not quite there yet…

Next: Ox Forgotten, Self Alone

Painting by Jikihara Gyokusei and Verse by Kuoan Shiyuan

Read whole series here