The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
beckons you into an unpredictable terrain
of the senses. This journey presents a full range
of playful symbolism and thought-provoking poetics.
With time and perseverance, the deceptively simple
imagery will reveal its hidden layers of meaning.
I am searching for the ox alone in the tall grasses.
Lost on the path along the wider rivers and deep mountains.
Drained of energy, spirit depleted, nothing can be found.
In the darkness, the cicadas sing.
Deep in the forest, alongside a river, the tracks are discovered.
The fragment grasses grow along the path.
I follow the endless tracks into the mountains.
Still no ox seen. His scent lingers.
The night gales sing in the trees.
The warm sun and gentle breeze touch the green willows on the riverbank.
The ox has no place left to hide.
No artist could paint the majestic head and horns.
With great effort, I catch the ox.
Stubborn and strong, the ox cannot be tamed.
He runs to high ground into the cloud mist,
Or down into the foggy marshland.
The whip and rope are held tight at all times,
Or the ox will stray into the dust.
With training the ox becomes gentle.
He will follow without bridle or chain.
Sitting on top of the ox, I am homeward-bound.
The song of my flute accompanies the sunset.
Both rhythm and melody create a mystical harmony.
For those who hear the song, there is no need for words.
Riding on top of the ox, I have come back home.
I am at ease, the ox can rest.
As morning passes, the dreams continue.
The whip and rope, no longer needed, are cast under the eaves.
Whip, rope, man, and ox, all merge into emptiness.
No words can describe the vast blue sky.
How could a snowflake rest on a fire?
Here reside the footprints of the old masters.
Far too many steps have been taken to return to source.
It may have been better to have been deaf and blind.
Inside my seclusion, I do not see outside.
Calm rivers flow, red flowers bloom.
I enter the marketplace, with bare chest and feet.
Cloths covered in dust and ash, I smile joyfully.
There is no need for magical powers.
New life and blossoms springs from dead tree.
The well-known Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, a series of 10 ink paintings and texts, was created by a Rinzai Zen monk named Tensho Shubun in Japan during the 15th century. The illustrations incorporated a Chinese ink landscape painting style popular at that time. Following the Zen Buddhist storytelling tradition, it uses metaphoric language and imagery as a tool for advancing one’s awareness and realization of their true nature.
The titles of the illustrations and text are deceptively simple. They are: In Search of the Ox, Discovering the Footprints, Seeing the Ox, Catching the Ox, Taming the Ox, Riding the Ox Home, The Ox Transcended, Both Ox and Man Transcended, Return to the Source, Entering the Marketplace with Gifts.
The ultimate goal of retelling this story was for enlightenment and moving beyond the wheel of Samsara; the cycle of birth and death. The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures is one of those stories, complete with illustrations, that has passed the test of time, helping people reconnect with their original Buddha nature.
I have taken these images and translated them into pieces made out of sugar (fondant cake frosting), bringing attention to the impermanence of the material world and our natural desire for a sweeter life. Being that the sugar pieces are edible could give an opportunity for one to look at the fact that most of our experience of the world is through our senses and therefore with the limitations of being centered on oneself and immediacy.
You may ask, “Why rehash an old story in our modern times?” I have found in myself and in those around me, that even with access to modern conveniences there still lingers a feeling of unsatisfactoriness. If basic needs are met, why do we still drown in suffering?
This is the underlying problem directly addressed in Buddhist literature, practice, and imagery. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, let us take a look at the wisdom of our ancestors, they may still hold the power to help unfold our potential without adding to the source of our collective suffering.
To help, it may serve us to look at the foundation of Buddhism. The aim of Buddhism is to liberate mankind from suffering. If we want to talk about such a simple, yet vast subject, Buddhists break it down into 3 helpful lists: The Three Universal Truths, The Four Noble Truths, and The Eightfold Path. They believe that if we become aware and discipline ourselves to follow these guideposts we can reduce suffering. This is easier said than done.
The Three Universal Truths: 1) Everything is impermanent and changing. 2) Impermanence leads to suffering, making life imperfect. 3) The Self is not personal and unchanging.
The Four Noble Truths: 1) Suffering exists (Dukkha). 2) There is a cause of suffering (Samudaya). 3) There is a way to end suffering (Nirodha). 4) The Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering (Manga).
The Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (union).
I do have to pause a bit at this point because there can be many different opinions of what is “right”. Once something is defined as right then other paths are assumed as wrong, which can start sounding discriminatory and dogmatic in practice. Take for example the topic of sex. Some feel as though the act of sex is a path of desire if outside the goal of procreation and therefore leads to suffering.
It is important to make a distinction between desire and craving. Desire is natural and basically keeps things moving in this world. Craving, which causes suffering, is an addictive behavior that takes one away from the Self, and therefore needs to be held in check.
Acknowledging this distinction between desire and craving gives one an opportunity to dive deeper into a more conscious relationship with oneself and the world. It is important to know and remember that we are already Buddha in nature and it is the attachments and cravings that take us away from that awareness. Meditation and mindfulness practices can hold our habitual thoughts in check. Sitting beside oneself and watching the mind doing what the mind does, gives space and time for more conscious “right” choices.
Long before the creation of the original ink drawings, the image of the ox was widely used and revered in China. The strong and mighty ox was seen everywhere in the fields, tilling the soil. Its domestication was essential for prosperous agriculture. Taming the ox was a necessity for a secure future.
Some see the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures as only for advanced practices within Zen Buddhism. They served as esoteric teachings for the monks, helping them on their journey toward enlightenment. Traditionally schools kept their practices secret to maintain control of this delicate process. Yet over time, the tools used in schools have become readily available to the public.
Similarly, riddles used to break monks out of their habitual thinking, known as Koans, may have lost some of their effectiveness as a training tool. I believe knowledge is power, and in the long run, it serves humanity. If reaching enlightenment has been slowed down for some through the distribution of important teachings, so be it.
Those who are inspired by the teachings were meant to see them, even if some roadblocks are erected in the process. This said I believe that inspiration can come at any moment and in any form during one’s lifetime. The original ink drawing inspired me enough to recreate them in a unique way years ago. The words had enough spark in them to hold my interest and open my mind a bit more. I hope they stir your pot and inspire exploration.
For further studies take a look at these amazing books on the subject. They have a much better understand of the subject, yet if it is true that we all have original Buddha nature in each and everyone of us, who truly is the expert.