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The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

I have always loved the teachings of Zen Buddhism for their simplicity and clarity. From short 17-syllable Haiku poems to delicate ink-brush Sumi-e paintings, Zen always points, without fuss, to the Nondual truth hidden in plain sight.

During the almost 20 years I lived in Japan, I delved quite deeply into Zen literature, Zazen (Seated meditation), and Kyudo (Japanese Zen Archery). Upon recognizing my true nature in February 2021, many of the Zen parables and stories I had studied suddenly made sense on a deeper level, and interestingly also pointed to the fact that the Satori or enlightenment-moment is not the end of the road.

Let me introduce you to my favorite...

Taken from the viewpoint of the "person" or seeker, and using the premise of a boy (the seeker) searching for his Ox (Enlightenment: Our true nature), the awakening path is set out beautifully in a series of ink-brush paintings called the Ten Ox-herding Pictures. The original version, painting in China in the 11th-century, contained only six pictures, ending with the recognition of our true nature, or Satori (Plate No.6). However, in the 16th-century, a further four pictures were added to show the post-awakening integration process, and form the complete set of ten pictures we are familiar with today.

It is important to note that although they are presented in a linear fashion, anyone who has been a seeker for any length of time will know that one's experience can jump about from that depicted in Plate No.2 to No.8 to No.3 and back again! Indeed, in many cases, a non-seeker can suddenly be at Picture No.6 out of nowhere and then need to work backward in order to stabilize their new vision of reality.

That being said, the Ten Ox-herding Pictures serve as a wonderful depiction of the process of recognition for many seekers and, with the addition of plates 7-10, the complete dissolution of the concept of the separate individual.

In 2007, I was lucky enough to see a 16th-century version belonging to Shokoku Temple in Kyoto, which was displayed in a special exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum. One funny anecdote from my visit concerns an old lady standing next to me. As we moved along the row of pictures from one to another, upon arriving at No.7 (a blank plate) she exclaimed in a rather loud voice, "That's very Zen-like isn't it?!", in apparent recognition of Zen's well-known nonsensical Koan or riddles: a popular teaching tool used mainly in the Rinzai sect to attempt to snap students out of habitual thinking.

Below are the ten pictures in sequence with my own short commentary on each. As you will see, each makes perfect sense and, when contemplated, will help act as a stabilizing source of encouragement for anyone who feels lost or confused on the Way.

Plate 1: Looking for the Ox

A boy, having lost his Ox and not knowing where to look, aimlessly searches here and there. He is lost in the world, and feeling alone and isolated, he suffers.

In actual fact, he is unaware of the Ox entirely but somehow senses that there is more to life than just appearance.

Plate 2: Finding footprints

After a period of searching, he discovers footprints. A path to follow. His intuitive sense of something more and feeling of lack is confirmed, as he finds a trail has been left, so he starts moving in the right direction.

This plate depicts how we may hear about enlightenment from a friend, a book, etc.

Plate 3: A first glimpse

The boy, having started following the tracks is now seeking in a clear direction and after a while, sees a glimpse of the Ox.

Perhaps after having read a little, or started meditation, our true nature reveals something of itself, which is often interpreted as a "spiritual experience" by the mind but nonetheless spurs the seeker onwards.

Plate 4: Catching the Ox

The boy is now clear about what he has to do and sets about catching the Ox. However, it takes a lot of effort and energy to hold onto it.

Here the boy is much closer to the Ox and has a grasp of it, but his mind, habitual tendencies, preconceived notions, etc make it almost impossible to keep it under control. Does the Ox not want to be caught or is the boy not ready?

Plate 5: Taming the Ox

The Ox becomes obedient although the boy keeps a gentle hold on the rope.

The mind has calmed down but there is a sense that it could rise up again at any moment, so diligence is required. The boy and Ox have grown closer still.

Plate 6: Riding on the Ox's back

The Ox carries the boy on its back. The boy feels pure joy, bliss, and freedom.

All effort released, the boy recognizes his true nature. He is one with the Ox and is carried and supported by it.

Plate 7: The Ox forgotten

The boy now sits alone at home and the Ox is forgotten.

For a while, the thought of having recognized his true nature is carried in the mind. However, eventually, even that is dropped.

Plate 8: All transcended: Emptiness

Upon dropping the thought of being enlightened, all thoughts are transcended and seen to be empty.

It is important to note here that emptiness does not mean nothingness. Thoughts will arise but are seen to be empty of individuality.

Plate 9: Unconcerned: The fullness of life

Body, world, and mind having been seen as empty and thus transcended, one is unconcerned this way or that. There is only the fullness of life.

Just what is.

Plate 10: Return to the marketplace

Beyond concepts of emptiness and fullness lies naturalness. The boy returns to society and does what is needed.

Opportunities to spread the knowledge of enlightenment may arise or may not arise. Either way, he does what is natural.



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Unknown member
Aug 08, 2023

I think it's just wonderful that you got to have time in Japan. I have connections to Japanese lifestyle and culture as well through things like living on the floor and haiku and Buddhism. And I went through a time when the book Riding the Ox Home by John Daido Loori was my favorite book relating to Buddhism. This little book also has the pictures you talk about, the longer set. I like the simplicity. I agree things are not linear in this "journey". This illusion of a journey, illusion of a life. There is no "linear" anyway. But it seems like it because of the concept of time. Anyway, nope, not linear :) Jumping around those ox pictures for…

David Farmer
David Farmer
Aug 08, 2023
Replying to

I’m glad it resonated with you. It certainly was a central part of my story.

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