The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures

(A personal reflection)

10ox6Along the wall on one side of the zendo where I practice are a series of ten Chinese ink paintings called the Ten Oxherding Pictures. I think of them as our “stations of the cross”–the Zen version of the series of carvings found in many Catholic sanctuaries. Both teach with images rather than words. They demand less in the way of literacy than does text, and, I think, enter our consciousness via a different route. In this essay, I’d like to give my own, personal take on them.

While they are numbered one through ten and (in our zendo) read from left to right, the sequence is not actually so linear. They describe a spiral–a process that we may go through again and again, at different levels and over different spans of time.

10ox11. Searching for the ox

 In the first picture, we see a human figure in the Chinese countryside, looking around, searching for something. This is the situation in which we feel like something is missing. We have questions. Is this all there is? Why am I in so much pain? Why is there so much suffering in the word?

This is a wonderful place to be! It means you are not complacent or asleep!

It’s also a bad place to get caught. We might come to build our identify around it, believing that we are somehow made more virtuous and realistic by being depressed and angst-ridden all the time. We may fear losing our sharpness, our weightiness–perhaps our artistic inspiration for writing dark, tense poetry or our motivation for combatting racial, social, and economic injustice–were we to move on. But this is only picture #1 of 10. Journeying on from here does not require becoming dulled and moronically cheery. In fact, the case is quite the opposite!

10ox22. Seeing the footprints

 This painting depicts the person discovering some animal tracks on the ground. I think of this as representing first hearing about Zen or some other meditative approach. Perhaps you hear a line from a sutra. Perhaps you pick up a book about Zen. Maybe you happen into a mindfulness workshop. Maybe you just see a meme on Facebook containing an apocryphal Buddha quote. But something sparks your interest. Something hints to you that perhaps meditation or Zen is a way to look into your questions.

This is a great place to be! You’ve let something fresh catch your interest, and have placed one foot on the path!

And, for me, I can easily get caught here. When I first became interested in Zen, I quickly realized that I could build up a really big library of books and read forever, never getting down to actually practicing. I still, years later, sometimes struggle with too much reading and too little practice.

10ox33. Seeing (or glimpsing) the ox

Now we see an ox butt, sticking out from behind a tree. To me, this resonates with getting a taste of practice. We’re not yet serious about it–we aren’t dealing with the whole ox. But perhaps we’ve tried sitting for five or ten minutes at a time. When I first began meditating, that’s how long I did it. And I only meditated on an “as needed” basis, kind of like taking aspirin. But even that little bit can be enough to give one a taste of meditation’s benefits.

This is a great place to be! You’ve experienced some insight or state of mind, perhaps a calmness or little bit of spaciousness, that you’ve never felt before. And you can get there just by following your breath! Wow!

The temptation here is to be so in awe of this experience that one builds a little shrine to it. One thinks of it as something very special and unique, and reflects back frequently on the memory of it. Perhaps one even builds a big shrine to it, in the form of writing a 300-page treatise or a self-help book about one’s enormous discovery. It’s tempting. But we’re still only on picture #3, and will miss out on so much if we stop here.

10ox44. Catching the ox

 Now comes the hard work. In this picture, the human figure has roped the ox, and is pulling hard in one direction while the ox is pulling hard in another. We usually start meditation with some variety of concentration practice. In Zen we often start by counting our breaths, from one to ten, and then starting over, usually for 25 minutes at a time. Every time our mind wanders away, the instruction is to gently bring it back to the practice. Yet we usually find that our minds are quite wild, willful, and strong–just like that rampaging ox. It jumps all over the place. And our knees hurt and our nose itches, too. Yet we continue. If we can, we talk with a teacher, establish a daily practice, and join a sangha (Zen community). We sit with others once a week or so, when possible, and look for opportunities to do sesshin (intensive retreats lasting a few days or longer).

It may not feel wonderful to be in picture #4. In this case, the reminder that there are more pictures yet to come comes as a promise–and good news!

10ox5.jpg5. Tending the ox

 The human figure is leading the ox, who now follows willingly behind. Practice is getting easier. We can sit for longer periods of time and more comfortably. We sometimes even find we can count our breaths to ten and start over–rather than (if you’re like me) mostly wandering off after “three,” or finding ourselves on “eighteen.” We might move on to following the breath instead of counting breaths, or to shikantaza (just sitting), or working with koans.

Wonderful! Your mind is starting to get trained!

The catch here is the thought, “Hey, I’m getting good at this!” We can start to develop some ego around this, thinking that we have expertise that marks us as special.

10ox6.jpg6. Riding the ox back home

 Now the human figure is riding home on the back of the ox, merrily playing the flute. We are now benefiting from the tamed mind, which is fundamentally joyful and creative. Many people have found Zen meditation helpful for the sorts of projects they having going on in their lives. Many books describe how Zen can improve your writing, your artwork, your golf game, your activism, or your business.

Wonderful! Creativity is flowering! You’ve found that Zen has benefits for your life!

Yet if we remain here, we’ve made Zen into something that we only value instrumentally. Our life is a little easier and more productive. But we still haven’t really figured out what our life is. We’re only on picture #6.

 10ox7.jpg7. Forgetting the ox, the ox-herder rests alone

 In this picture, there is no ox–only the person, resting in their home. Up until now, “I” have been dealing with “something.” Now that sense of having a task disappears. I associate this picture with samadhi, a state of deep peace that one may sometimes experience when deeply and diligently practicing zazen (Zen meditation). It can be permeating, and can seem to come from somewhere outside of oneself. It may be accompanied by makyo, various kinds of visions and unusual sensory experiences.

Wonderful! In my experience, samadhi is like being handed a tall, cool glass of water while struggling uphill on a long, hot hike. It’s refreshing. These experiences can seem to arise spontaneously, and be like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.

And after you drink the water, the glass is empty. Samadhi experiences come to an end. We get caught here if we regard getting to, or staying in, this particular mind state as the goal of our practice. We may begin our meditation sessions with the goal of getting back to “that thing I experienced three weeks ago on Thursday afternoon.” So we turn away from where we actually are, today–we turn away from our actual life. If you get stuck here in picture #7, you’ve become what we call a “samadhi junkie.

10ox88. The ox and the ox-herder are both forgotten

 This picture is a circle, called the enzo, and represents enlightenment. Not only is there no ox, no “something” to deal with, there is also no separate individual who has to deal with it, no “I.” Words fail here: the idea that enlightenment is something that one “experiences” or “attains” is actually fundamentally misleading.

This may be a Really Big Deal, referred to with terms such as Great Realization, kensho or satori. It may be the kind of thing described in works such The Three Pillars of Zen, with language about lightening flashes, earthquakes, and the entire universe turning inside out. What I notice more in my day-to-day, week-to-week experience, though, that resonates with this picture, are little openings I think of as en-lightenup-ments. When these happen, I suddenly see through and release some long-held belief I didn’t even know I was carrying around. You know how, when a bubble of water resting on a still surface pops, the water falls back and momentarily traces a ring on the surface? That’s what the enzo reminds me of. Some little aspect of selfing has thinned to the point of disappearing.

For the longest time, I thought #8 was the end of the line. The vastness, non-discrimination, and non-judgment of this state can be so startling and so appealing, that we may want to dwell only here. Yet if we get caught here, we get so involved in the absolute that we forget the relative. At a minimum, we may be pretty useless to this suffering world. At the extreme, we may feel we have achieved a special state of consciousness beyond that experienced by the average human, and that this means that  the usual norms of right and wrong no longer apply to us. Then we may cause all sorts of damage. We’re only at picture #8. There are two more to go.

10ox99. Returning to the original place

Here we see only natural objects: Just this tree. Just these leaves and branches. This stage is pointed to by words and phrases such as “just this,” “this is it,” “intimacy,” and “right here and now.” In picture #9 we realize that the boundlessness realized in #8 is also none other than our life, and the life of the universe, as it is right here. It is every bit of it (including, by the way, the parts we don’t like).

Everything is clear! It’s all good! The universe is boundless, and the leaves on the tree, the speck of dust on the table, the annoying sound of the neighbor’s radio, and even that annoyance right now arising in me, contain it all!

The catch here is that we may think that we should always live in this place of total clarity and immediacy. We may think that having once tasted this, we should move through our lives always clear, always thoroughly grounded and knowing exactly what to do. Not so. I can’t tell you how many times, faced with a new day and a new set of circumstances, I’ve thought with great surprise, “Really, this is it?” So instead of trying to hold onto an experience, it’s more helpful to reaffirm a dedication to keep practicing. We can’t stay forever looking only at the expansive blue sky. But we now have faith that it is there, even when it is covered with clouds.

10ox1010. Entering the marketplace with helping hands

Now we have a fat, jolly figure carrying a big bag over their shoulder–rather a Santa Claus type–entering a village. We have practiced. We have, through our practice, developed some wisdom and compassion. And how we bring these into living our lives–these lives, with work and online shopping and terrifying headline news and doing the dishes. These lives, in which we relate to family members, coworkers, and friends, and in which we now understand that we are not separate from refugees or prisoners, nor from those who abuse power. These lives where we have to deal with sickness and aging, and decide how to use our time and resources. The marketplace is often bustling and noisy–this isn’t about blissing out on a meditation cushion to the gentle sound of bells. Yet our practice has filled our bag. We have some good things to give.

This is great! We are fully living our precious lives! We may even be helpful!

In fact, we may get so busy doing things that we forget to practice. We may come to judge ourselves by how successful we are at helping. Oops–caught yet again.

So even though we are “at the end of the line,” we are not at the end of the spiral. We’ll go back from #10 to #1, or perhaps #5 or somewhere else. Perhaps this start of a new spiral will happen over minutes, or perhaps over years, or perhaps, in various layers, over both. A couple weeks ago, I would have described myself as being mostly in a sort of #8-#10 place. I was working with holding nondiscrimination, openheartedness, and the non-separateness of myself from others, and, at the same time, with emphatically pointing out that the actions of some of these others were very much not okay. Then, a few days ago, I read something (#2) that got me to realize that there is an energetic imbalance in my practice, and that in some sense I need to start over with how I sit (#3). And so it goes.

You are invited to correct my interpretation by consulting the many more authoritative descriptions. For example, here is a commentary by my teacher, Josh Bartok. By the way, the images accompanying this blog were painted by Master Jikihara, and the titles I have used for the pictures are adapted from the work of Martine Batchelor.


Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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