‘Ten Verses on Oxherding’ – Handscroll; ink and color on paper, 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
The bull stands here for the Buddha Nature that is hidden behind the clouds of our misconceived everyday identification with thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The first stage — the ‘Search for the Bull’ — is really when something is felt to be lacking in our life. We search for happiness, but it fails us time after time. As the poem reads, we “only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.” But one day, we get a hint of ‘something’. This is the ‘Discovery of the Footprints’, the first call “heavenward”. And soon, we get our first glimpse of understanding, our ‘Perceiving the Bull’, with “those majestic horns”. It comes with the realisation that “that ‘entrance’ is everywhere, always just in front of you”, as Buddhist nun and Zen master Lily-Marie Johnson wrote.
“On I searched… into the mountains and along the river banks.
But in every direction I went, I went in vain.
Who would have suspected that it was right where I stood;
That I needed only nod my head and my true Self would appear before me.”
~ Hsu Yun (Commentary on the Oxherding Pictures)
Now comes the time of struggle, when the honeymoon is over, when we are ‘Catching the Bull’, and realise the power of our illusory self with its tendencies and idiosyncrasies. As Lily-Marie Johnson remarked, “Although he is always with you, you can’t turn around fast enough to see him.” The bull stands, says the poem, “in an impenetrable ravine.” For the meeting with the peace of our true nature is really also the meeting with the strength and power of our illusory self. It is interesting to note that the taming of the bull is also an image for taming the ego, consciousness having no need to be worked upon since it is already present and fully achieved. As is noted by Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, ‘Taming the Bull’ “is achieved by the precision of meditative panoramic awareness.” This is when you get accustomed by the sheer light of consciousness by contemplating its nature through a process of abidance.
So the taming of the bull is here the gradual dissolution of our ego-nature into pure consciousness or God’s being, until it finally merges into the ultimate Self within. This ‘dissolution’ or ‘merging’ is what the picture ‘Riding the Bull Home’ represents, the “return homeward”. There is no more search. A harmony and naturalness descends upon the herder who is now riding the bull effortlessly, playing his flute. But there is more to it. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche remarked, there comes a point when: “There is no more bull.” This is what ‘The Bull Transcended’ is about, when, in Lily-Marie Johnson’s words, “the world of samsara is experienced as it really is: nirvana. … Then the perfect unity of all things, including yourself, appears effortlessly.“
“But in the end all things return to the One.
The deaf and dumb, the crippled and deformed
are all restored to the One’s Perfection.”
~ Hsu Yun (Buddhist Zen master, 1840-1959)
Now we come to the drawing called ‘Both Bull and Self Transcended’. This is represented by the empty circle. “All has fused itself into nothingness. … Unity is all that exists.” says Alfonso Carrasco. Or as old Zen master Guishan Da’an (9th century) remarked: “In the Dharma there is nothing attained. If there is anything to be attained, it is that nothing is attained.” We are back to the beginningless beginning. This is what ‘Reaching the Source’ means. “Take any direction, roam the world to its farthest edge. All comes back to where it started… to blessed Emptiness.” says Chinese Zen master Hsu Yun. Or, as the poem reads, “The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.” The last drawing is when you now ‘Return to Society’. We share the light of our understanding with the people and the world. And this is symbolised in the drawing by the presence of Budai or the ‘Laughing Buddha’, who brings this simple joy of being to all he encounters.
Aldous Huxley wrote beautifully about this ‘returning to the World’: “Because he now loves, loves to the extent of being identified with the divine object of his love, he can do what he likes; for what he likes is what the Nature of Things likes. He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers; he and they are all converted into Buddhas. For him, there is complete reconciliation to the evanescent and, through that reconciliation, revelation of the eternal.” The beauty of the poems and paintings is that they can be meditated upon endlessly and reveal different aspects of the search for truth. The image of the bull as the supreme Self, or as the separate self, are like two sides of the same coin. Either you endeavour to tame the sense of separation in order to reveal the true self, or go and abide repeatedly in your true being so that the illusory separate self is swallowed by it. I leave it now to the paintings and poems to speak for themselves. I hope you enjoy…
The ten paintings are by Tenshō Shūbun (15th CE) – Handscroll, ink and light colors on paper
Shôkoku-ji Temple, Kyoto – Wikimedia Commons
In Search of the Bull
In the pasture of the world, I endlessly push aside
the tall grasses in search of the Ox.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon
the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the Ox. I only hear
the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
Discovery of the Footprints
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 heavenward.
Perceiving the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild,
willows are green along the shore —
Here no Ox can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head,
those majestic horns?
Catching the Bull
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.
Taming the Bull
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.
Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the Ox, 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.
The Bull Transcended
Astride the Ox, I reach home.
I am serene. The Ox too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling
I have abandoned the whip and ropes.
Both Bull and Self Transcended
Whip, rope, person, and Ox — 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.
Reaching the Source
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 tranquilly on
and the flowers are red.
Return to Society
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.
Poems by Kuoan Shiyuan (12th century)
Paintings by Tenshō Shūbun (1414-1463)
Accompanying text by Alain Joly
Read this page with many different commentaries on the ‘Ten Ox Herding Pictures’…
– ‘Ten Ox-Herding Images‘ – by Wim van den Dungen – (lulu.com)
– ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings’ – by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki – (Tuttle Publishing)
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