Ox Herding Pictures (Free Preview)

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Module 03: The Core Teachings > Ox Herding Pictures > Video Intro


Maps, pop quizzes, and guideposts can be infinitely helpful when we undertake any spiritual journey. The path to self-discovery is not only the most harrowing of undertakings, it takes immense courage to make the choice to examine oneself honestly and completely. Most actually avoid self-examination at all costs, and the world we live in is becoming incredibly efficient at providing us with more and more distractions with every new gadget, every new and improved screen or app or groundbreaking snippet of information that we absolutely must talk about and pass onto anyone who will listen, assisting us from ever having to sit with our selves, even for a moment.

What we find when we truly sit with ourselves, is the answer to our frustration, our agitation and our discontent; it’s our Original Mind that’s been buried under years of conditioning and distraction.  It’s the place where genuine, unshakable happiness truly does exist.  Sadly, though, being face to face with our own perfection is something we’ve been conditioned to feel ashamed of instead of allowing it to guide and empower us.

The path to self-discovery, by its very nature, is rooted in self-doubt, dissatisfaction, and confusion.  So often, the path is unclear, there seem to be so many forks in the road that force us to choose, or we’re not exactly sure which way to turn, afraid of not making the “right” decision.  Thankfully, though, this “not-knowing” illustrates the exact problem we’re trying to overcome.  When we are not in touch with our True Nature, there is only doubt, seething dissatisfaction, of emptiness, and a feeling as though we should know true joy, but don’t, except perhaps in rare glimpses.

Therefore, the more indicators that we have to help illuminate our path, the better. And, believe it or not, every word that has ever been written in relation to Buddhism, Zen, the Tao; they are nothing more than guideposts to our own journey. Despite the unfamiliar terminology that is sometimes used with our training, there is no information within them that we do not already possess.

The Ox Herding photos are one of those beautifully crafted guideposts on our path.  This series of images helps us to visualize the core teachings.  Just like the Tao Te Ching, the Ox Herding Pictures can provide an endless source of inspiration for the student of Zen. It’s something we can return to time and again to remind ourselves of the path we are now on, where exactly we are on that path, or as a reminder of the difficult path we’ve taken and now embody in our daily practice.

History of the Ox Herding Pictures

There have been many manifestations, many versions, but I still prefer the set drawn by Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) who lived from 1414-1463. It’s a series of 10 circular paintings mounted as a hand scroll, all in ink with some light color on parchment.  As many others have, I’ve often thought of trying to modernize this series, but I believe that even today, the images and their accompanying refrains are equally as relevant. I offer commentary on each panel to help update and modernize the message for you.

A very useful exercise is to write your own commentary for each of the Ox Herding panels. When you come to a panel you’re having difficulty commenting on, it’s another way to know exactly where on the path to self-discovery you are./

The original author of “Ox Herding Pictures” was a Zen master of the Sung Dynasty known as Kaku-an Shi-en of the Rinzai school of Zen. In his general preface, though, he refers to another Zen Master called Seikyo, who made use of the ox to explain his Zen teaching. In Seikyo’s 5 picture series, the gradual development of the Zen life end in the disappearance panel.  This image is now the eighth picture of the series, and is called “The Ox and the Man Both Gone out of Sight”; something you will learn about in detail in “Module 07: Cultivating Emptiness“.  Kaku-an felt ending on Emptiness was somewhat misleading, because it made it seem as though Cultivating Emptiness was the ultimate goal of Zen discipline, which it is not.

So, he expanded on the 5, to the 10 most study and refer to today.

Kaku-an’s series is accompanied by my favorite depictions of the Ox Herding images by Shubun, a Zen priest of the fifteenth century. The original pictures are preserved at Shokokuji, Kyoto.

The passages below were translated into English by D.T. Suzuki, and the poems were translated by John Daido Loori. Two of D.T. Suzuki’s most famous books are “Introduction to Zen Buddhism” and “Manual of Zen Buddhism”.  John Daido Loori has authored a number of books, but the one most relevant to this lesson is his . I highly recommend checking them out as you progress through this course.

Ox Herding Photos & Commentary

Onto the Ox Herding photos and commentaries. The translation is first, followed by the corresponding image, and then my commentary.

I. Searching for the Ox.

The beast has never gone astray, and what is the use of searching for him? The reason why the oxherd is not on intimate terms with him is because the ox herder himself has violated his own inmost nature. The beast is lost, for the ox herder has himself been led out of the way through his deluding senses. His home is receding farther away from him, and byways and crossways are ever confused. Desire for gain and fear of loss burn like fire; ideas of right and wrong shoot up like a phalanx.

Alone in the wilderness, lost in the jungle, the boy is searching, searching!
The swelling waters, the far-away mountains, and the unending path;
Exhausted and in despair, he knows not where to go,
He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple-woods.

Ox Herding Panel 1 - Searching for the Ox

COMMENTARY: The first image explains the process that begins at our birth. From practically our first breaths, our indoctrination begins, and the layers of the onion begin to form over our Original Mind. Dogen, a Zen Master said that we are “perfect and complete, lacking nothing from the moment we are born until the moment we die”. It is the illusory self and the world replete with distractions that help us to forget that fact about our own True Nature. We leave our non-dual existence behind, and gradually become separated from our Original Buddha Mind, forgetting that we once had everything we needed to live a life free of suffering, to live a life where we trust what is in our hearts wholly and completely.

II. Seeing the Traces.

By the aid of the sutras and by inquiring into the doctrines, he has come to understand something, he has found the traces. He now knows that vessels, however varied, are all of gold, and that the objective world is a reflection of the Self. Yet, he is unable to distinguish what is good from what is not, his mind is still confused as to truth and falsehood. As he has not yet entered the gate, he is provisionally said to have noticed the traces.

By the stream and under the trees, scattered are the traces of the lost;
The sweet-scented grasses are growing thick–did he find the way?
However remote over the hills and far away the beast may wander,
His nose reaches the heavens and none can conceal it.

Ox Herding Panel 2 - Finding Traces

COMMENTARY: This is the moment we realize something is amiss.  For me, it’s when I realized that something was simply not “right” about the strict Roman Catholic teachings that I was raised by. I began to feel disconnected, while feeling that there must be something more to this life, to this world. That realization triggered what became a lifelong journey of discovery into the roots of my own religion, to the roots of spirituality, to when and why we started to view our own spirituality as something that comes from outside of us, rather than in the deepest and truest parts of our own human nature.

III. Seeing the Ox

The boy finds the way by the sound he hears; he sees thereby into the origin of things, and all his senses are in harmonious order. In all his activities, it is manifestly present. It is like the salt in water and the glue in color. [It is there though not distinguishable as an individual entity.] When the eye is properly directed, he will find that it is no other than himself.

On a yonder branch perches a nightingale cheerfully singing;
The sun is warm, and a soothing breeze blows, on the bank the willows are green;
The ox is there all by himself, nowhere is he to hide himself;
The splendid head decorated with stately horns what painter can reproduce him?


COMMENTARY: There comes a moment in our lives when we have true clarity. It’s often called being “in the zone.” It’s a time when everything is in perfect harmony, when everything comes to us with ease, and we operate seamlessly within the world. These moments typically only come in glimpses, but it’s these glimpses that are ineffable, that open our eyes to possibility. It’s in these rare and precious moments that we begin to strive for something more, to find our way, to know our True Selves, and to remember who we were before the layers of conditioning were thrust upon us.

IV. Catching the Ox

Long lost in the wilderness, the boy has at last found the ox and his hands are on him. But, owing to the overwhelming pressure of the outside world, the ox is hard to keep under control. He constantly longs for the old sweet-scented field. The wild nature is still unruly, and altogether refuses to be broken. If the ox herder wishes to see the ox completely in harmony with himself, he has surely to use the whip freely.

With the energy of his whole being, the boy has at last taken hold of the ox:
But how wild his will, how ungovernable his power!
At times he struts up a plateau,
When lo! he is lost again in a misty impenetrable mountain-pass.


COMMENTARY: In this stage, we begin to understand the nature of our True Self. As we progress in our rediscovery of ourselves, though, we are constantly and increasingly at odds with the outside world. We most-likely live in a very ordered society that has more distractions by the day. Most of our faces are buried in electronic devices, racing from one moment to the next to find the next amazing thing that will take our attention, and thankfully prevent us from ever having to sit with ourselves. Something tragic happens when were are separated from our True Nature: The further we travel from our Original Mind, our Buddha Mind, our Zen Mind, the more disconnected we become, and the more intensely we need to find distractions to fill the void. Suddenly, knowing every detail about a sports team becomes an obsession, or having every detail of our lives laid out or planned out in advance. We want safety because the father we drift from our True Selves, the more terrifying the world gets. But there is false comfort in that distraction because it’s all we know, just like an abusive relationship. So, some of us cling to that distraction or that abusive relationship with our lives because it’s how we define ourselves. This is the powerful demons spoken of in every mythological tale, in every story of the Hero’s Journey. There is no greater dragon to fight than the dragon within our own hearts.

V. Taming the Ox

When a thought moves, another follows, and then another-an endless train of thoughts is thus awakened. Through enlightenment all this turns into truth; but falsehood asserts itself when confusion prevails. Things oppress us not because of an objective world, but because of a self-deceiving mind. Do not let the nose-string loose, hold it tight, and allow no vacillation.

The boy is not to separate himself with his whip and tether,
Lest the animal should wander away into a world of defilements;
When the ox is properly tended to, he will grow pure and docile;
Without a chain, nothing binding, he will by himself follow the ox herder.


COMMENTARY:COMMENTARY: Glimmers of truth continue to abound when we are brave enough to stay on the path of self-discovery. Many quit long before now, especially when one realizes that the path to truth is an extraordinarily lonely one, and one that not only requires great courage, but great strength as well.  We’ve learned about the illusions and delusions that have run our lives up until now. We aren’t angered at the idea that all of what we know might possibly be a lie.  Fighting against the very nature of society, making our own way, peeling back the layers of the onion, learning and accepting the fact that our minds are not nearly as connected and healthy as we were led to believe they were, as we force ourselves to become orphans in a world that holds family and distraction and religion above all else and at any cost; these require the strength of a hero. But you have everything you need inside of you, and despite inner and outer forces trying even harder to convince you that your way is no way at all, that you are wasting your time with this nonsense, that you will ultimately fail and have wasted your time and your life — we must find the strength to continue.  Recognizing one is fat is not enough to make one skinny. Realizing the truth, and integrating it within our daily lives are two separate ideas. It’s in the fifth stage where we begin the real work of integration and actualization.

VI. Riding the Ox Home

The struggle is over; the man is no more concerned with gain and loss. He hums a rustic tune of the woodman, he sings simple songs of the village-boy. Saddling himself on the ox’s back, his eyes are fixed on things not of the earth, earthy. Even if he is called, he will not turn his head; however enticed he will no more be kept back.

Riding on the animal, he leisurely wends his way home:
Enveloped in the evening mist, how tunefully the flute vanishes away!
Singing a ditty, beating time, his heart is filled with a joy indescribable!
That he is now one of those who know, need it be told?


COMMENTARY: It can take months, it can take years, but the moment eventually arrives, when we can see what it means to trust our own heart. When we trust our own heart, we know the secrets of life, the universe, and everything, usually in glimpses, and in random moments in our day. Knowing and being are two different things, though. And, to learn to embody our truth is an ongoing journey. At this point, it’s important to note that there is no turning back. Ignorance truly can be bliss, and within familiarity can be comfort. So, our minds often try to lure us back, to convince us that all of this study is nonsense, that we’ve wasted our time. Despite having glimpses of what it’s like to know our center, to be able to remain calm amidst external adversity, the older we are when we start our spiritual journey, the more difficult it can be to not be seduced by this yearning for the days when we were unaware that the path to our True Nature existed at all. This is where the three poisons manifest in all their glory; greed, anger, ignorance, trying to convince us that these are the things that will free us. This is the point where we face the dragon; our own false self struggling to stay alive. It knows its on it last breaths, and it’s up to us to slay the dragon, to future the newborn infant, to allow the plum to mature and become sweet.

VII. The Ox Forgotten, Leaving the Man Alone

The dharmas are one and the ox is symbolic. When you know that what you need is not the snare or set-net but the hare or fish, it is like gold separated from the dross, it is like the moon rising out of the clouds. The one ray of light serene and penetrating shines even before days of creation.

Riding on the animal, he is at last back in his home,
Where lo! the ox is no more; the man alone sits serenely.
Though the red sun is high up in the sky, he is still quietly dreaming,
Under a straw-thatched roof are his whip and rope idly lying.


COMMENTARY: This is the stage were most of our struggle has ended. This is also a stage most never reach. This is where true peace begins to pervade our being, where we get glimpses of true bliss, where we finally remember who we were before the conditioning, when we begin to truly comprehend what it means when we say that we are all connected, that there is no difference between us and other. This stage is the first moment we consciously learn how to take refuge in Buddha, when we realize that there never was a Buddha, and that what we’ve been looking at this entire time was nothing more than a reflection of the True Self that we had forgotten, buried, ignored, and were taught that it didn’t really exist. Few things in life are more threatening to society, to governments, to religious institutions than the personally empowered. This is the stage of your journey where you are gaining strength, you are gaining your power, and empowering yourself. It is here where we can finally begin to observe ourselves honestly and objectively. Most spend their lives hiding from themselves, immersed in the distractions that help prevent us from ever having to face ourselves. Not anymore. In Stage Seven, our self-examination is thorough, and exhaustive.

VIII. The Ox and the Man Both Gone out of Sight

All confusion is set aside, and serenity alone prevails; even the idea of holiness does not obtain. He does not linger about where the Buddha is, and as to where there is no Buddha he speedily passes by. When there exists no form of dualism, even a thousand-eyed one fails to detect a loop-hole. A holiness before which birds offer flowers is but a farce.

All is empty-the whip, the rope, the man, and the ox:
Who can ever survey the vastness of heaven?
Over the furnace burning ablaze, not a flake of snow can fall:
When this state of things obtains, manifest is the spirit of the ancient master.


COMMENTARY: This stage is marked with the complete falling away of body and mind. If you thought you were in rare company before, this stage is populated with even fewer souls. This stage is not without its pitfalls, though. It is here where one can become a “dead person breathing” as John Daido Loori often described it. Just as we cling to our conditioning and our illusions, it’s just as easy to cling to our Awakening or our Nirvana and Bliss. When we get our first glimmers of an Awakened Mind it can be intoxicating. It can be an unforgettable moment in our lives, and we may initially want to find a way to immerse ourselves in that feeling all the time. But Buddha warned that extremes in any situation are dangerous tempters. Clinging to anything too tightly will only prevent us from freeing our minds, and only keeps us inextricably tied to our illusions. It is also in this stage where it may become critical for students to have a trusted teacher. Realization is not yet enlightenment, and it’s so easy to derail oneself and short circuit all of the training that has happened up to this one moment.

IX. Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source

From the very beginning, pure and immaculate, the man has never been affected by defilement. He watches the growth of things, while himself abiding in the immovable serenity of non-assertion. He does not identify himself with the maya-like transformations [that are going on about him], nor has he any use of himself [which is artificiality]. The waters are blue, the mountains are green; sitting alone, he observes things undergoing changes.

To return to the Origin, to be back at the Source–already a false step this!
Far better it is to stay at home, blind and deaf, and without much ado;
Sitting in the hut, he takes no cognizance of things outside,
Behold the streams flowing-whither nobody knows; and the flowers vividly red-for whom are they?


COMMENTARY: It’s in stage nine when we realize that life is not just complexity and struggle. It’s here that we fully realize that all we’ve been taught is a lie, where we truly realize the depth of conditioning that was imposed upon our minds and our wills from a very early age. When we return to the source, we realize that everything, including our selves, were perfect and complete at the very start. Having an empowered mind, having the power to find our own bliss, already possessing everything we need is not something that those in a position of authority like. So that knowledge is methodically and systematically taken from us, often unknowingly by our own parents, family, friends, and society. It’s here we empathy and compassion emerge and become the driving force in our lives. Often, in our struggle for self-awareness, we can become very isolated. This is often referred to as being “The person on the mountain.” It’s in the ninth stage where we begin our descent from that mountaintop, as we lose all trace of our enlightenment, and learn to live selflessly amongst others, shining as brightly as we can, knowing that shining as brightly as we can is the best gift we can give both ourselves and others.  And it’s in this stage where every action, every reaction comes from a place of empathy and compassion. We may not always be perfect, but quietly, often indiscernibly, often without us even noticing, we begin to operate from a completely new place, a completely new vantage point. We will notice it in bits at first, when we observe how we react to various situations. We will notice a calmness that feels unshakeable. This is the connected peace that will continue to permeate, inform, and guide your existence from here on out.

X. Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands

His thatched cottage gate is closed, and even the wisest know him not. No glimpses of his inner life are to be caught; for he goes on his own way without following the steps of the ancient sages. Carrying a gourd[1] he goes out into the market, leaning against a staff[2] he comes home. He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers, he and they are all converted into Buddhas.

Bare-chested and bare-footed, he comes out into the market-place;
Daubed with mud and ashes, how broadly he smiles!
There is no need for the miraculous power of the gods,
For he touches, and lo! the dead trees are in full bloom.


COMMENTARY: This is the commentary for panel V, which will be visible once you enroll in the “Awakening Your Buddha: A Course in Life and Zen” course. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share this brief preview with you. There are 98 modules total, and all of them are equally as engaging as this one. With several hours of video, 1 hour of one and one time with Sensei Keith, and lifetime reviews, quizzes, and content updates.  Since you tried out our free Preview, please use the coupon code “COURSEPREVIEW” during checkout to receive 10% off your purchase of any of the courses available here.

Riding the Ox Home
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