Ox Herding

Posted by on Mar 25, 2020 in blog | 2 Comments

I have been working on a series of images for several months now based on another series of ten pictures drawn by a Chinese monk in the 12th century. That series is commonly known as “The Ox Herder Parable” or “The Ten Ox Herding Pictures” of Kakuan Shien or simply as “10 Bulls.” 

Although Kakuan’s series is from the 12th century, “the Ox Herder parable” upon which the series is based, had probably been around in the Buddhist world already for at least 300 years. But it is Kakuan’s work that is most popularly known. The story goes that the parable had its origin with an exchange between two Chan Buddhist monks over the question, “How does one search for the Buddha without knowing the way?” The  Chan Master observed, “It is as if one were looking for an ox on which one is riding.” 

Why an ox? Because then — and even now in many parts of Asia — the ox was a most valued part of one’s livelihood, an essential ingredient for nearly every aspect of one’s survival. Further, the ox (or water buffalo or bull) had religious significance as an image of fertility associated with agriculture. In Taoism, the ox and herdboy were emblematic of the seasonal rhythms of nature & renewal, as well as the pleasures of bucolic country life. 

The Ox Herder Parable was an instructional vehicle employed in Zen monasteries. It was set forth in the form of ten “songs” (or poems) as an aid to achieving enlightenment. Unlike the enigmatic koan, which seems completely senseless in nature, the ox herding songs had a narrative quality that rendered them accessible to a new aspirant or lay follower. The analogy between an ox herder’s search for the bull and the steps or stages of achieving enlightenment offered a path to discovering one’s true nature that appeared less daunting. When Kakuan subsequently created a visual form for the poems there was then a portal for both the eye and the mind. 

 Ox herding seems just a bit quaint today. It’s hard to imagine Kakuan’s pictures having much existential weight for us. It’s equally hard to imagine them having even visual interest, much less mindful intrigue or instruction without a quantum of contextual notes & interpretation. And then, there’s the challenge that many today have of seeing/thinking analogically in the first place! 

As a student of Zen however, I have found them fascinating since I first discovered them in Paul Reps’ wonderful collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. They captured my attention simply because they had nothing to say, i.e. in so many words. They weren’t auditory. However they awakened a truth inside that was hard to ignore. 

That was years ago, a time in which as a graduate student and then young professor my whole world was wrapped in “words & texts.” No matter how diligently I studied or how eloquently I thought I lectured, words never achieved for me the gravity of an answer to anything. (The one exception: rarified poetry, like haiku) Only as I began to take Zen seriously did I learn that one of Bodhidharma’s four essential elements of “Zen” was, “no dependence on words and texts.” So….

Now I am a painter. I am still tethered to the word but no longer obliged to obey, no longer limited by what I have to say. As a painter, no need to rely on the word to express what can best be grasped in form by seeing. Seeing precedes saying in the same way feeling informs thinking. I have a hunch that’s what motivated Kakuan to draw his pictures nine centuries ago. He could see much more than he could say.

I call my series, “Gentling the Bull.” I take my cues from  Kakuan. Like  him, the pictures I am making express my own mind & heart as I grapple with understanding the same human journey. Each painting marks a significant moment of practice realizing ‘buddha-nature,’ i.e. an answer to the enigma, “Who am I (Really)?” And I am using the image of the bull in the same manner — to represent the challenges, the struggle, we have coming to terms with our true or authentic self. 

The images themselves however have little resemblance to the originals. They aren’t quaint  (you can recognize what they are) but they are equally arcane. I recognize that. From the first in the series, “Searching for the Bull” to the last, “All Things Made New,” I am learning myself. And I am not pretending to get it right. Nor do I pretend to offer anyone “enlightenment”! I am re-imagining Kakuan in my own way. I echo what Kakuan’s collaborator said in his Introduction to the series, “I have used these pictures as my eyes [and] have willfully stirred up waves and attached horns sideways onto the ox’s head.”  This simply means that fundamentally there is nothing to be sought after — buddha-nature is a given rather than something acquired. So it may all be nonsense.

I keep in mind that Bodhidharma did not say, “no dependence on seeing.”  What’s a picture for but to teach us to see?


  1. Cathy Clasper-Torch
    April 16, 2020

    What a wonderful piece you’ve written, Larry, on your series, and your own journey of teaching and words and Zen and now painting. Painting that enhances the words and stories, but transcends as well. I like your title for the series, “Gentling the Bull.” Thank you, Larry!

    • Lee Clasper-Torch
      April 17, 2020

      Here, here! (or…See, see!!?)
      Thanks Larry. 🙂


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