Ten Oxherding Pictures
Commentary by Shodo Harada
From talks delivered in May 1998
Translated by Priscilla Daichi Storandt
Oxherding text translations by Victor Sogen Hori
Illustrations by Tim Jundo Williams
For the week we are here together, I would like to talk about the Ten Oxherding Pictures. This text, which dates from the twelfth century, is one of the oldest documents of Zen history. The Blue Cliff Record, another of the most famous, historically recorded Zen texts, was written by Engo Kokugon in the years of his lifetime, from 1063 to 1135. His brother disciple, Daizui Genjo, had a disciple named Kakuan Shion. Kakuan Shion wrote the text for the Ten Oxherding Pictures, and then Kakuan Shion’s grandson disciple, Gion, added the pictures. Compared to the Blue Cliff Record, this was a very accessible text. The pictures could be seen, and the short pieces of poetry could be heard and remembered. Because of this, Kakuan’s work was able to reach many, many people.
This is story of the taming of an ox, of how a wild ox is caught and tamed. The catching and taming of the wild ox are likened to a person’s process in practice. Why an ox? Why is the story that of the taming of an ox? In India, oxen were considered very precious and were carefully taken care of. Because India was a Hindu country, cows were considered messengers of God, and everywhere oxen and cows walked freely, mingling with humans as equals. So to raise an ox meant to work on your divine self.
In the Buddhist sutras there is also a teaching about how we have to grab the ox’s snout and not let him rough up the neighbor’s garden–in that way to always keep a firm grip on the nose of this ox. In India, an ox, as the representative of an ideal, was used as a metaphor for training. But in China the idea and the thing were not seen as separate. Rather, in China, an ox represented the mind itself directly–not an idea about the mind, but the mind as it is. For us today, oxen are animals, they are wild. But in wildness there is also a quality that is beyond dualism.
Master Nansen gave us another example. Master Nansen went out one day, and when he returned his disciple had prepared a bath for him. Seeing this, Master Nansen said to his disciple, “When the bath is ready, please put the ox in the bath.” The monk was a very considerate and attentive monk. When the bath was ready, he went to Master Nansen and said, “Master cow, your bath is ready. You are welcome to enter it now.” Master Nansen, wanting to test this monk’s mind, said, “Oh, that’s very good. But did you bring the rope to take the cow into the bath? How will you take the cow into the bath if you haven’t got a rope?” The monk had gone far enough in his functioning to be able to call the roshi a cow, but he had not gone quite far enough to be able to see how he was going to get that cow into the bath.
The monk was silent. Another disciple of Nansen’s, Joshu, had just returned. Nansen had no gaps in his practice with his students. He tested Joshu immediately by telling him how this monk had said he was going to take the cow into the bath, but when asked where the rope was to take him to the bath, the monk had become silent. So Nansen asked Joshu what he would have said. At this Joshu immediately took hold of his master’s nose and pulled him into the bath, saying, “Come on, come on, let’s go to the bath.” Holding on to his master’s nose, Joshu pulled him all the way into the bath. Master Nansen cried, “You don’t have to be so rough about it!” while enjoying his disciple’s answer very much.
For Master Nansen, the ox is the person and the person is the ox. They are not separate existences. The person becomes the ox, becomes the moon, becomes the flower, in every situation radiating brightly, without any disconnection between things, without any dualism.
There’s another story from Master Isan Reiyu. Isan Reiyu told his students that one hundred years after his death he would be reborn as an ox. And on the left side of this ox would appear the words Isan Reiyu. He asked his students, “Will you call this animal an ox, or will you call it Isan Reiyu? If you call it an ox, then you are just calling me an ox. But if you call it Isan Reiyu, then you are calling this animal me. Which way will you say it?”
Here is another way of looking at this question. We have a name, and we are alive right here. Some think that we die and then disappear forever. Some think that we die and something remains. Each person has an individual way of seeing this question. But in Buddhism there is no such thing as a concern about being born and dying, about beginning and ending. It is not looked at in this way. This is a mental, dualistic way of looking at it, with a before and an after of death and a before and an after of birth. In Buddhism, right here, right now, everything is eternally alive. We are all beings. There is no sense of anything being separated; there is no dualism.
We are here on this planet, six billion of us. Of course, we cannot look at how we can possibly do something to save each and every one of those six billion people. If we think we have to do something for all of them, that is impossible. In Zen, it is looked at in a different way. If we raise not one thought of a small self, that resolves it right there, and resolves it for everyone. We do not do it as a saving of another person; rather, we are manifested as becoming completely that bird’s call or that sun’s shining or that moon’s light. We become true awareness and fresh aliveness.
We are all this huge space, this huge universe–not just this small planet of Earth but all the galaxies. All six billion of us are manifesting as these. When the small self-conscious awareness comes forth, then we become divided into six billion separate beings. When we let go of that, when are free from that, we all return to the true root, the source from which everything comes forth. We are able to be born as all things. We return to all things. The true source of all beings is here. From here Buddhism is born.
What is beyond and prior to all of our delusions? What is beyond and prior to good or bad or what is profitable? These all come forth from the same deep source. If our mind is realized to be rooted in this great source, then we have no need for a text like Ten Oxherding Pictures. We do not have to stay attached to the delusions and the thoughts that all arise from this source. But while we are all endowed with the source and the possibility of its realization, we forget. As Ikkyu has said, the further we go from our infancy, the more deeply our ego takes over. How can we be returned to our mind’s true source? It cannot be done so suddenly. It has taken so much time and so much conditioning for our minds to become filled with so much clutter, and it will take time as well for them to become clear again. That is why we need a text like this, which divides the process of going through practice into ten simple steps.
Humans live with many delusions, and this aspect of their lives is expressed in terms of the six realms: the realms of hell, of hungry ghosts, of animals, of ashuras, of humans, and of heavenly beings. These realms are not something we will experience after death; they are what we are experiencing right now. The first of these, that realm of hell, is to not believe in anything–this hell can be to live under the same roof as someone and not be able to believe in them, or trust them at all. This is truly hell. That realm of the hungry ghosts is to be wanting more and more and more, no matter how much you already have; no matter how much you already have right in your own hand, you still want even more, endlessly. Then there is the world of the ashura, the angry god, which you experience when you become irritated and upset, always furious about something and not quite sure why you are so furious. The world of animals is to feel shame and embarrassment about what you have done. The world of humans is to be able to be sorry, to be able to review our behavior and repent and look at ourselves and improve. The world of heavenly beings is the world where we are able to enjoy our hobbies, or music, spending time pleasantly. But if we have not yet realized our true source, even if we are in the realm of the heavenly beings, enjoying ourselves and feeling that everything is blissful, we will continually return to the realm of the hungry ghosts or the human realm or the hell realm, without rest, without pause.
We of the human realm can review our behavior. We can want to change it. Only humans can do this. For this reason the human realm is the highest in quality of all the six realms. One might look at the realm of the heavenly beings and think that it seems superior, but heavenly beings are so absorbed in their own pleasure that they forget others. When we become absorbed in our pleasure, we forget all of society. Only taking care of our own small self-centered happiness and self-satisfaction, we turn our backs on society. In this way, the heavenly realm is not of the highest quality. This realization that there is a possibility of reviewing our own behavior, and the knowledge that there is a path to be walked, is what is represented by the first of these ten pictures.
This is also called the awakening of deep faith, or the awakening of the Bodhisattva nature: when we realize that life is not only about our own personal, individual selves but instead about what we can do for all of society. To reduce our own small self-centered self and let go of that ego–this is what we can do for all of society. To lessen our own personal heaviness is the way to liberate all beings. To look to society and offer everything we are to society: that is the point. So why do we do zazen? Why do we do practice? To liberate society is our primary goal, but first we have a challenge to work on within. Until we have clarified our own mind, letting go of our heaviness and ego attachments, our offering to society will only cause more problems. We have to work on the interior clarification, in the same way that the axle has to be straight in order for the wheel to turn smoothly.