The Ten Oxherding Pictures

Zen Buddhism describes the stages for the Enlightenment through ten images with commentaries, called Ten Oxherding Pictures (十牛図). Inspiring many artists throughout Buddism traditions, there are various versions of the pictures.

The key theme is the relationship between an oxherd and his ox or bull (In the titles we use “bull” and in the description, “ox”). It is a metaphor of the practitioner seeking the Enlightenment. The oxherd represents a practitioner, and the ox is what he or she pursues.

It starts with The Search for the Bull (尋牛). On this initial drawing, the commentary is as follows:

In the pasture of the world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, my strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

The Search for the Bull

The oxherd is a seeker, struggling with the world. He has heard there is the ox, the idea that he seeks after. To find the ox, however, he has to push aside various tall grasses, many obstacles in this world. Life is difficult. We are so tired. Should we believe in the existence of such ox? How long we should we continue our pursuit of the ox?

And the second drawing has merged, Discovering the Footprints (見跡) with the following commentary:

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints. Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains, they are found. These traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, looking heav

Discovering the Footprints

At the moment of almost giving up, the oxherd has found out the footprints of the ox. There is evidence that such ox exists; the effort was not useless. These footprints will go into the deep forest of the mountain. We are hopeful and yet scared. The oxherd needs to be courageous to keep tracing them.

Finally, he has found the ox. Indeed, there is the ox. It was not a rumor. We’ve found the truth. It seems the Enlightenment is near. The third drawing is Perceiving the Bull (見牛). And the commentary is as follows:

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore – Here no bull can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Perceiving the Bull

Now, the oxherd feels euphoric. We know that the world is with the ox. Hearing a song of such truth, we also sing our songs, praise the ox, worship him! The world is meaningful with what we see in the ox. But now, the new desire emerged in the mind of the oxherd, which is to control the ox. Can we control the power in the world? We become ambitious.

And the fourth drawing merges, Catching the Bull (得牛).  It seems the commentary shows another struggle, not in searching but catching the ox.

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, or in an impenetrable ravine he stands. I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

Catching the Bull

Can we control the world? Catching the ox seems impossible. Nevertheless, the desire of the oxherd is much stronger. He seeks the ox to gain the secret power of the ox and eventually to control the world. The ox symbolizes the law and system of the world. Understanding them is the key to conquer the world.

And the oxherd won. Now, this oxherd can tame the ox. We can control the world. Knowledge and science are now our powerful tools to conquer the world. The firth picture has emerged, Taming the Bull (牧牛). The commentary goes this way:

The whip and rope are necessary, else he might stray off down some dusty road. Being well-trained, he becomes naturally gentle. Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Taming the Bull

He still relies on the tools. These are his whip and rope. We have a sense of control with the tools and theories. The world is what we can search and eventually understand through articulations – knowledge and scientific instruments. We’ve never imagined the world looks such controllable, even obedient. Now, we know the power of tools and weapons.

It seems we are even stronger than the world. We are not only taming the ox but rinding on this ox. The sixth picture has emerged, Riding the Bull Home (騎牛帰家). The commentary is like this:

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Riding the Bull Home

There is a glimpse of non-duality. At the moment when this oxherd is riding on the ox, it seems the oxherd got confused, saying “Am I controlling the ox? Or, is the ox controlling me?”

At the moment we feel we have conquered the world, and yet we get confused. What do we mean by controlling the world? Are we outside the world? Or, are we part of the world. Controlling the world means controlling ourselves; at the same time, the world controlling us.

And the seventh drawing has shown up, The Bull Transcended (忘牛存人). The commentary is like this:

Astride the bull, I reach home. I am serene. The bull too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

The Bull Transcended

Recognizing such non-duality, paradoxically enough, the oxherd does not need the ox anymore. This oxherd feels at home, and calmly recalls his experience. Why was he so eager to search for the ox by pushing off the tall grasses? Why was he so desperate to catch and tame the ox? Now he smiles, even laughs at these memories. He is home with the ox. He can forget the ox.

The ox is neither for him nor against him. He is the ox, and the ox is himself. There is no duality. In this realization, he also asks himself, “What about me?” Just as the ox diminished, should the oxherd do as well? We now see a glimpse of nothingness. The eight picture has popped up, Both Bull and Self Transcended (人牛倶忘), like the sound of one hand clapping.

Whip, rope, person, and bull – all merge in No Thing. This heaven is so vast, no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire. Here are the footprints of the Ancestors. I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

Both Bull and Self Transcended

Suddenly, what we see is nothingness. What were those series of struggles between oxherd and ox? Were they just an illusion? How about all the phenomena in this world? Are they just an illusion?

What we see is the mere surface. What we sought was the surface. We thought we dug deeper and deeper by through various efforts. The truth was; however, we were running on the surface; still, we are running on it.

With this realization, such source we see is emptiness. The ninth picture is as is, Reaching the Source (返本還源). The commentary is as follows:

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with and without – The river flows tranquility on and the flowers are red. I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

Reaching the Source

It seems we have reached the source, which is emptiness. What does it look like? What we see is still the same surface. Because there is emptiness except for the surface; there is the surface except for emptiness. Emptiness is the surface; the surface is emptiness. This ninth picture shows only the world as is, which is what the Heart Sutra tells us:

色即是空 (Form is emptiness)

空即是色 (Emptiness is form)

The Heart Sutra

Now, in this tenth last stage, what would this oxherd do? Moreover, what would we do? Is there any higher stage than the source as emptiness? The tenth title is In the World or Return to Society (入鄽垂手). What about the source? What about emptiness? Forget them. These words are also an illusion.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now, before me, the dead trees become alive. I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

In the World or Return to Society

Image by Klaus Hausmann; Ten Paintings by Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) (1414-1463)

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