The Ten Ox-herding Images of Zen
I thought I’d do something different and fun in this post, and take a look at probably the most beloved images in Zen Buddhism.
Known as The Ten Ox-herding Pictures, they have been the source of endless commentary and inspiration in Zen since at least the 12th century. From the first time I saw them, I loved them for their humor as well as their great beauty, charm, and symbolism.
The images used in this post are attributed to a 15th century Japanese Rinzai Zen monk named Shubun. Shubun’s paintings, in turn, are thought to be copies of the lost masterpieces of a 12th century Chinese Zen Master named Kajuan (also Kaku-an Shi-en or Kuo-an Shih-yuan.)
Just what are these ancient and revered pictures about? I think one of the best succinct explanations of them come from a Theravadan monk named Ajahn Sucitto:
“In Zen, the ox-herding images are emblematic of the Path. The person is searching for the ox, and sees its tracks. He is like a person looking for the mind, trying to realize an enlightened mind. He searches for the ox, finds it, and struggles with it. He traps it, tames it, and rides away serenely on it.
This is like the person who finds kàya-viveka, the sense of buoyancy. And then the purification of the mind: the ox becomes docile and the rider lets the ox free. The mind is free and light. And then there is a picture which is just an empty space, like a circle with nothing in it. No ox, no rider: liberation from mind.
The final picture is called going back to the market place with helping hands—it depicts a simple-looking man with a big beam on his face wandering into the market place to do whatever needs to be done.
Abandonment and compassion have met. This, as I understand it, is the main thread of the Buddha’s teaching.”from mind.
The final picture is called going back to the market place with helping hands—it depicts a simple-looking man with a big beam on his face wandering into the market place to do whatever needs to be done.With that brief introduction in mind, open yourself up to The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures and Kaku-an’s commentary.
Abandonment and compassion have met. This, as I understand it, is the main thread of the Buddha’s teaching.”
Take your time. Look at the pictures. Drop your defenses. Be open to joy! Ponder what Kaku-an says. Think of each picture and commentary as a koan. No “right” answers anywhere. Nothing to believe, nothing to “get right” or even “get.” Just this.