Ten Bulls

‘Ten Verses on Oxherding’, 1278 – Metropolitan Museum of ArtWikimedia




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


Taste the poetry and evocative power of these old poems and drawings… (READ MORE…)


Verses on the Perfect Mind

‘Huike thinking’ – Shi Ke, 10th Century – Wikimedia Commons



It is only recently that I have heard the first two lines of this Zen poem called ‘Hsin-hsin Ming’, which can be translated as ‘Verses on the Perfect Mind’. It is an ancient poem, one of the earliest and most influential Zen writings. It was allegedly composed by Chien-chih Seng-ts’an, who is referred as the Third Zen Patriarch. Very little is known about him, except that he was initiated into the Dharma by Dazu Huike (487–593) and died in 606. It has been multi-translated, and given various names. The title literally means ‘Inscription (or record) on the Believing Heart (or the Faith Mind)’. Verses on the Perfect Mind seems to be a good translation, considering the deeper meaning of the word ‘perfect’ which is ‘completed, accomplished’. The perfect Mind here is an ‘is-ness’, the natural mind, the Buddha mind. As the Nirvana Sutra says, “Great faith is no other than Buddha nature.”

What makes the translation of the poem difficult is the tension between conveying the right meaning and rendering the brevity of the poem. There is a passage in the present translation that goes: “When things can no longer be faulty, it is as if there are no things. When the mind can no longer be disturbed, it is as if there is no mind.” This was translated by Prof. Dusan Pajin: “No blame, no things; no arising, no mind.” The poem consists of 146 unrhymed four-character verses, which is shorter than the usual lines in Chinese poetry which have five or seven characters. So the form is concise, scarce, and that is in line with the Zen meditative form. 

It should not be read as a succession of individual quatrain, but more as a vision, something whole, indivisible. I think it was written in this spirit, for the original work is really just a succession of undivided characters. Maybe it was recited fast, concentrating on the meaning behind the words, the felt-understanding. It starts with these famous lines, so often quoted: “The Great Way is not difficult, for those who have no preferences.” It develops as variations on these lines before ending and finding completion — we could say vanishing — with this strong reminder: “Words! Words! The Way is beyond language, Words never could, can not now, and never will describe the Way.” The present interpretation is by Eric Putkonen. Eric is a Modern-day house-holder yogi and lover of what-is who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida where he hosts nonduality satsangs. I hope you will enjoy…




The Great Way is not difficult, 
for those who have no preferences. 
Let go of longing and aversion, 
and it reveals itself.

Make the smallest distinction, however, 
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth. 
If you want to realize the truth, 
then hold no opinions for or against anything.

Like and dislike 
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning (of the Way) is not understood, 
the intrinsic peace of mind is disturbed.

As vast as infinite space, 
it is perfect and lacks nothing.
Indeed, it is due to your grasping and repelling 
that you do not see things as they are.


Continue reading this old poem by the Third Zen Patriarch… (READ MORE…)