Ox Herding

Posted by on Mar 25, 2020 in blog | No 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 the images I refer to for my series are from the 12th century, the Ox Herder parable had probably been around in the Buddhist world already for at least 300 years. The story goes that it began with an exchange between two Chan Buddhist monks over the question as to how one searches for the Buddha without knowing the way. The Master’s response was, “It is as if one were looking for an ox on which one is riding.”

Why an ox? Because then — and even in many parts of Asia today — the ox was a most valued part of one’s livelihood, an essential ingredient for nearly every aspect of one’s survival. Then too, 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, and the pleasures of bucolic country life.

The Ox Herder Parable was an instructional vehicle set forth in the form of ten “songs” (or poems) employed in Zen monasteries as an aid to achieving enlightenment. Unlike the seemingly enigmatic koan, which strikes one as completely senseless in nature, the ox herding songs had a narrative quality that rendered them accessible to a new aspirant or lay follower. So 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 created a visual form for those 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 absent a quantum of contextual notes & interpretation. And…never mind the challenge that many today have of seeing/thinking analogically to begin with!

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. Much later I learned that one of Bodhidharma’s four essential elements of “Zen” was, “no dependence on words and texts.” That was years ago, a time in which as a graduate student and then young professor my whole world was a matter of “words & texts.” No matter how diligently I studied or eloquently I lectured, words never achieved for me the gravity of an answer to anything. (The exception perhaps being the most rarified poetry.)

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 be grasped best by experience. Seeing. I have a hunch that’s what motivated Kakuan to draw nine centuries ago.

I call the series I am working on, “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 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; they are probably arcane (but you can recognize what they are). From the first in the series, “Searching for the Bull” to the last, “Giver of Gifts,” I am learning myself. And I am not pretending to get it right. In the Introduction to Kakuan’s series, Jion Osho says, “I have used these pictures as my eyes [and] have willfully stirred up waves and attached horns sideways onto the ox’s head.” What he means of course is that fundamentally there is no heart-mind to be sought after — buddha-nature is a given rather than an acquisition. So it may all be nonsense.

But Bodhidharma did not say “no dependence on seeing.” What’s a picture for? …to teach us to see.

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