A series of ten Buddhist drawings make up what are known collectively as the Ten Oxherding Pictures or sometimes just as the Ten Bulls. Each one graphically illustrates a stage along the path to enlightenment or self-realization, but they can also be seen as a metaphor for a wider range of human development and growth. (they are not, as Lifecoach screams ungrammatically but histrionically in its headline, “The 10 Secret ZEN Steps Straight To ENLIGHTENMENT!” There is no secret about them, and they are not steps but metaphors for steps.)
I first encountered these illustrations as a section in the book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones was published in 1957 and has since gone through several editions.
I was given a paperback copy of the book in the late 1960s by the Buddhist owner of a farm in BC where I briefly stayed during one of my peripatetic explorations of Canada. I managed to hang onto that copy all these years and all the miles in between and I have read it several times since I first received it. That copy still sits on my bookshelf, well read and well worn, one of a very rare few that survived my travels and my frequent changes in interests.
In fact, Buddhism — or perhaps more correctly it would be Buddhist ethics — has been one of the few things I have been relatively constant with in my studies, something I still read and learn about. And attempt in my humble way to practice. (I lean towards the Zen-like North American Buddhism rather than the schools that still include supernatural aspects and elements (Tibetan, for example), although all share common themes in ethics and morality.)
The Ten Bulls has long been a particular favourite of expression for me, both artistically and as a metaphor. At any point in our lives, if you think about your progress in whatever it is you are doing, whatever goal you pursue, we can all identify with every image, every stage. That’s why this series has such a universal appeal. It can be read in reference to, say, learning a musical instrument (“In his song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” Cohen interprets the Ten Oxherding Pictures through the eyes of a western cowboy balladeer… singer-songwriter Cat Stevens made reference to the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the title of his album Catch a Bull at Four.” See here for more.). Or writing a novel. Or accomplishing a fitness goal. Even financial accomplishments have been paired.
You can also read the series as a political metaphor: chasing the bull(shit) of modern politics (see Herding facts and their alternatives in a post-truth-era). Even without the scatological reference, politics is itself a learning experience (at least for those in it who care about more than themselves) with stages of growth that can be represented by these images.
But don’t be fooled into believing that each image is an isolated step like some sort of enlightenment hopscotch: each is rather a snapshot of a progression, or as one writer puts it, the “…action unfolds in poetic leaps that cross over several stages. The leaps from one stage to another are driven by the ongoing interaction between subject and object, which is captured poetically rather than logically.”
Why pictures work so well to convey a complex and subtle meaning instead of just words is conveyed in the Buddha’s own words:
“I have the truth of enlightenment that I found by myself. This is such a delicate and complicated truth that I cannot use languages to deliver.”
But it didn’t begin as a Buddhist form. The pictures and story, according to what I’ve read, were first produced by a 12th century Chinese Taoist artist for a simpler (fewer images) version of the story, although basically the same metaphor. (“Laozi himself is often depicted riding an ox, an image representing that he has come to understand nature and absolute reality and exists in harmony with these.” See here for more.)
Later Ch’an and then Zen Buddhists took the story and expanded it as part of their teaching cycle. It remains so today. Reps himself wrote, “The bull is the eternal principle of life, truth in action. The ten bulls represent sequential steps in the realization of one’s true nature.”
The unadorned version of the images shown here were drawn by Japanese woodblock artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki, and were used in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, along with the original verses that accompanied each image. I prefer these over the others for their crisp simplicity. However, the images have an enduring popularity and can be found in many versions today.
As noted on the Columbia University website:
The twelfth century monk Guo-an Shi-yuan (also known as Kuo-an Shih-yuan or Kakuan Shien) revised and expanded upon the traditional Taoist story of the ox and the oxherd by creating a series of ten images and accompanying verses to simultaneously depict and narrate this well-known tale. Guo-an’s version subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring versions of the parable.
The ten images/stages as taken from the Reps’ book are labelled:
- Searching for the Bull
- Discovering the Footprints
- Perceiving the Bull
- Catching the Bull
- Taming the Bull
- Riding the Bull Home
- The Bull Transcended
- Both Bull and Self Transcended
- Reaching the Source
- In the World
You can read the description of each image here. And you can see alternate images for these stages here and here. A more modern representation of the images along with an explanation is here. A different woodblock set from 1609 is here.
Each image has long been associated with a verse that verbally explains the image. For example, image three is accompanied by this verse:
“I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?”
A further comment on the images was added and included in the Reps’ book. Here is the comment for the above verse: “When one hears the voice, one can sense its source. As soon as the six senses merge, the gate is entered. Wherever one enters one sees the head of the bull! This unity is like salt in water, like color in dyestuff. The slightest thing is not apart from self.”
Usually other authors add more comments to explain the metaphors. For example this from the ExEAS website:
In the third picture, the oxherd actually catches sight of the ox. Now, having started to practice, he glimpses the hidden powers to heal his suffering. But he does not yet understand the source of these powers and how to apply them in his search for peace and contentment. The verse, in saying that “I hear the song of the nightingale.//The sun is warm, the wind is mild, the willows are green along the shore.” suggests that the reality the oxherd glimpses is not something separate from the ordinary things that he experiences, even though he does not yet know this.
And this comment on the third image is by P. T. Mistlberger:
The bull is spotted! The bull appears far away, perhaps even hiding behind a bush, but now there is no doubt that it is real. Visual confirmation has happened. This stage marks the first glimpse of the underlying principle of mysticism, that all that is perceived is ultimately not separate from the mind that perceives it. This can be likened to an initial awakening, usually called satori or kensho in Zen. It is an incomplete realization — symbolized by the fact that the seeker only sees the bull’s hindquarters, not its entirety — because it is going to require sustained discipline and a great passion for truth in order to deepen this realization and begin to integrate it into one’s daily life.
A more modern interpretation comes from the late Leonard Cohen, in his song the Ballad of the Absent Mare
Then at home on a branch in the highest tree
a songbird sings out so suddenly
Ah the sun is warm and the soft winds ride
on the willow trees
by the river side
Oh the world is sweet the world is wide
and she’s there where the light and the darkness divide
and the steam’s coming off her she’s huge and she’s shy
and she steps on the moon
when she paws at the sky
And the late Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, commented on the third image thus:
You are startled at perceiving the bull and then, because there is no longer any mystery, you wonder if it is really there; you perceive its insubstantial quality. When you begin to accept this perception of non-duality, you relax, because you no longer have to defend the existence of your ego. Then you can afford to be open and generous. You begin to see another way of dealing with your projections and that is joy in itself, the first spiritual level of the attainment of the Bodhisattva.
There are alternate classical verses, too, such as those by the 15th century Chinese author, P’u Ming, whose verses accompany other woodcuts in a somewhat different order at the end, and are also differently named. In this series, the images progress towards the transcendence shown in the final image, while in other versions (including those shown here), that is the eighth image in the sequence. This may represent a difference in teachings or philosophy between schools.
D. T. Suzuki also used this order and similar illustrations in his 1935 book, The Manual of Zen Buddhism. Also see here for the full text. The P’u Ming titles are listed below, with Suzuki’s titles for the images in parentheses:
- Untamed (Undisciplined);
- Taming begun (Discipline Begun);
- Restrained (In Harness);
- Turning its head (Faced Round);
- Tamed (Tamed);
- Unhindered (Unimpeded);
- With the current (Laissez Faire);
- Forgetting the other (All Forgotten);
- Alone in the light (The Solitary Moon);
- Both gone (Both Vanished).
According to the description on the site linked above,
The origin of the oxherding metaphor can be traced to this injunction delivered to the Assembly by the Buddha the night of his Nirvana, “Monks, once you’re able to keep the precepts, you should prevent your five senses from indulging in the five desires. Be like the herdboy with his staff in hand who watches over his ox and keeps it from running through grain fields.” (Testament Sutra)
I’ve not been able to identify the specific “Testament sutra” mentioned in this description yet – it may be better known by another name.
These precepts are Buddhist vows or rules (a la the Ten Commandments) that define Buddhist morality and behaviour. Precepts come in several but similar versions: a core five-precept version (not to be confused with the admittedly similar Taoist five precepts), an eight-precept version and also another group from the Mahayana tradition called the Bodhisatva precepts of ten rules. To this latter list are added several other rules, often quite long lists of them, depending on the school or tradition and whether they are intended for the layperson or monk .
The image to the right is an alternate form of the seventh oxherding picture, which is also shown above. Note that the first one (from the Reps’ book) does not show the bull, while this one shows it nearby. In the first, the man is awake and watching the world. In the second, he is asleep (as is the bull). There are other alternate images on the website linked – take a careful look at numbers five and nine, as well. I am not aware if these represent a subtle but important difference in the teaching of various schools or teachers themselves.
As explained in the Buddhist Tricycle Magazine:
The broad category of moral conduct has been codified throughout the history of Buddhism, beginning in the Buddha’s time, into five precepts for conduct. The number of precepts for the behavior if monks has run into the hundreds in some sects. For laypeople, the Theravada tradition has five precepts.
These five precepts have common elements with most moral conducts in the other major traditions. Some aspects, especially the precept to refrain from taking life, have been a continuing focus of attention throughout the history of Buddhism.
The five precepts in both Buddhist and Taoist doctrine — the core from which the longer versions are derived — are essentially these:
- Abstain from killing living beings;
- Abstain from theft;
- Abstain from sexual misconduct;
- Abstain from falsehood;
- Abstain from intoxication.
Pretty basic, secular rules for being a moral person, although perhaps their very elementary nature and broad application makes it hard for some people to follow some or all.
(In my youth, I was not always good at keeping the last one. These days, I simply enjoy my glass of wine at dinner time, and seldom have more. Moderation and mindfulness took me a while to learn.)
In the Tricycle magazine article, these five precepts are written slightly differently. Number two, for example, is listed as “to abstain from taking what is not given” and number three as “to abstain from sensuous misconduct” – subtle but important differences. Number five is “to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind.” Well, maybe one glass of wine doesn’t cloud the mind of an old curmudgeon, so it could be okay.
The eight precepts and ten Bodhisatva precepts each add more admonitions, for example: against taking food at the wrong time; dancing, music, visiting shows, flowers, make-up, the wearing of ornaments and decorations; a tall, high sleeping place; broadcasting the misdeeds or faults of the Buddhist assembly, nor encouraging others to do so; praising oneself and speaking ill of others, or encouraging others to do so; being stingy, or encouraging others to do so; harbouring anger or encouraging others to be angry, and speaking ill of the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings or laws) or the Sangha (community) or encouraging others to do so.
Another Mahayana text called the Brahmajala Sutra lists three “pure” precepts:
- Do not create Evil
- Practice Good
- Actualize Good For Others
Which is akin to a Buddhist version of the Golden Rule. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that the “Golden Rule” like the precepts above, have more than just a legalistic reference:
Normally we interpret the golden rule as telling us how to act. But in practice its greater role may be psychological, alerting us to everyday self-absorption, and the failure to consider our impacts on others. The rule reminds us also that we are peers to others who deserve comparable consideration. It suggests a general orientation toward others, an outlook for seeing our relations with them. At the least, we should not impact others negatively, treating their interests as secondary.
Note that these are not sins: there is no culture of guilt here, no damnation. As Ian Mackenzie wrote about the fifth precept:
The precept does not cast alcohol as a sin. It stems more from the problems caused by a clouded mind. (Basically, you’re more likely to do something stupid when boozed).
And on Beliefnet, Ted Rose of the Shambhala Mountain Center, took it a bit further, writing about “The goal of drinking mindfully is to bring full awareness to every sip…The problem out in the real world is that it is hard to know where the line between utility and abuse lies.”
But I digress; my point with the later perambulation was to raise the notion that human frailty makes it difficult, at times, to be mindful. Which we should all attempt to be. Back to the oxherding pictures.
We are all at various stages of self-awareness and mindfulness along our life’s journey; we can find ourselves in one of the oxherding images. As Reps wrote:
An understanding of the creative principle transcends any time or place. The 10 Bulls is more than poetry, more than pictures. It is a revelation of spiritual unfoldment paralleled in every bible of human experience. May the reader, like the Chinese patriarch, discover the footprints of his potential self and, carrying the staff of his purpose and the wine jug of his true desire, frequent the market place and there enlighten others.
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