‘Ten Verses on Oxherding’, 1278 – Metropolitan Museum of Art – Wikimedia
Back in the 12th century, in China’s Zen tradition, appeared a series of ten drawings and their accompanying poems. They were meant to describe the ten stages on the path to enlightenment, or to the recognition of our true nature. This series is traditionally named the ‘Ten Ox Herding Pictures’ or more simply ‘Ten Bulls’, and its best known version was created by the Chinese Zen master Kuoan Shiyuan in the 12th century. The present drawings are copies of the originals by the the 15th century Japanese Zen monk and artist Tenshō Shūbun.
The bull and the herder is an old theme in the Buddhist literature of the first centuries AD, and was borrowed and developed in the tradition of Zen. Although other versions have a different number of drawings, this series with ten pictures was adopted in Japan and made famous in the West through the 1957 book ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings’, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The poems have been translated and commented numerous times, as is often the case with Old Chinese, a language which lends itself to many interpretations.
The main contribution of this version is that the series doesn’t end with the awakened state, shown by a mere circle representing emptiness, but with two more drawings where the realisation of truth is taken further into the realm of form, or everyday life. As the Zen master Jitoku Ki said: “Every worldly affair is a Buddhist work, And wherever he goes he finds his home air; Like a gem he stands out even in the mud, Like pure gold he shines even in the furnace.”
“Form is not different from emptiness,
and emptiness is not different from form.
Form itself is emptiness,
and emptiness itself is form.”
~ Heart Sutra