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    Our Spiritual Journey ...

        ... and the Ox Herding Pictures

returning to the marketplace of life

The Inner Journey

Many people today have a vague feeling of being lost or a longing for something that is missing in their life. We may know there is something missing, we may long for something better, yet we just don't know what to do about it. Fortunately, we have each been given an Inner Light, a Spirit of Guidance, which is constantly available to provide calm guidance and peaceful insight in each moment of our journey through life. We just need to discover, and then follow, this inner source of peace and wisdom. This process of discovery and embodiment is often called the inner journey, or the spiritual journey.

The inner journey is often recognized as having two major aspects: first, the discovery of an inner source of calm and serenity, and secondly the discovery of an inner source of guidance and insight. Just as the calm, still depths of the ocean are free of the turbulence seen on the surface, so too are the depths of the heart calm and still, free of the turbulence and chatter of daily life. When we have finally entered the calm depths of the heart, we find that these same calm depths are the home of wisdom and understanding.

We can discover the inner peace and understanding which are our birthright if we are willing to put in the effort to discover the calm inner guidance, a task which is often accomplished through concentration, contemplation and meditation. In doing so, we move beyond the distress and limitations caused by our old ways of excessive self-concern, past conditioning and habitual responses. When we abide in the inner calm and respond to the needs of the present moment with beneficent qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion, generosity and tolerance, life is filled with joyful satisfaction.

Unfortunately, many of us respond to the challenges of daily life in a rather predictable, habitual knee-jerk manner which arises out of our past experiences, past opinions and past preferences, rather than responding from the depths of the heart to the present situation. Whenever we fail to respond to the challenges of the present moment in a manner which is firmly founded upon clear understanding of the present situation and the calm guidance of the inner depths of the heart, we're likely to feel a sense of discontent or dissatisfaction.

The Inner Light, the Spirit of Guidance, in the ever-calm innermost depths of the heart continually urges us toward beneficent traits such as loving-kindness, generosity, tolerance, compassion, sympathy and forgiveness, and our repeated expression of such qualities is crucial for our own happiness and satisfaction in life. In fact, whenever we fail to respond to those around us in a calm and peaceful manner which is consistent with qualities such as loving-kindness, generosity, tolerance, compassion, sympathy and forgiveness, our own peace and satisfaction are greatly diminished.

It takes practice, often called spiritual practice, to bring forth the calm and beneficent inner qualities in the midst of turmoil and conflicts in daily life. Spiritual practices are tools to help us bring forth these beneficent qualities and let our unsatisfactory habits fall away.

An Overview of the Journey

Those who embark on the inner journey of spiritual practice often have fundamental questions such as:

Where does this spiritual path lead?
Where am I on the path?

Fortunately for us, there are many signs and guideposts along the way which have been provided by the prophets, great teachers and fellow travellers to help us answer such questions. The scriptures provide us with means to calibrate our moral compass, and provide suggestions of how to lead a good life, yet they generally provide little guidance to help us understand with greater clarity where we are headed and where we currently are.

In response to that situation, a number of spiritual masters have provided an overview of the stages of the spiritual path, such as in the seven valleys of The Conference of the Birds by Fariduddin Attar of Nishapur and in The Seven Mansions by Saint Teresa of Ávila, yet I've never found any greater clarity of expression or higher inspiration than the delightfully succinct Ox Herding Pictures.

Step-by-step the Ox-Herding Pictures show our progression from an excessively self-concerned, habitually conditioned state, through the stages of gaining insight and understanding, and finally emerging back into the busy marketplace of life in a benevolent new role.

The Ox Herding Pictures

There are several different versions of the Ox Herding Pictures, but perhaps the most well known is the following version using illustrations and text created by Chinese spiritual master Kakuan Shien as interpreted by D. T. Suzuki. Following each illustration is the main text followed by a clarifying poem.



Searching for the Ox


The beast has never gone astray, and what is the use of searching for him? The reason why the oxherd is not on intimate terms with him is because the oxherd himself has violated his own inmost nature. The beast is lost, for the oxherd has himself been led out of the way through his deluding senses. His home is receding farther away from him, and byways and crossways are ever confused. Desire for gain and fear of loss burn like fire; ideas of right and wrong shoot up like a phalanx.

Alone in the wilderness, lost in the jungle, the boy is searching, searching!
The swelling waters, the far-away mountains, and the unending path;
Exhausted and in despair, he knows not where to go,
He only hears the evening cicadas singing in the maple-woods.




Seeing the Traces


By the aid of the sutras and by inquiring into the doctrines, he has come to understand something, he has found the traces. He now knows that vessels, however varied, are all of gold, and that the objective world is a reflection of the Self. Yet, he is unable to distinguish what is good from what is not, his mind is still confused as to truth and falsehood. As he has not yet entered the gate, he is provisionally said to have noticed the traces.

By the stream and under the trees, scattered are the traces of the lost;
The sweet-scented grasses are growing thick--did he find the way?
However remote over the hills and far away the beast may wander,
His nose reaches the heavens and none can conceal it.




Seeing the Ox


The boy finds the way by the sound he hears; he sees thereby into the origin of things, and all his senses are in harmonious order. In all his activities, it is manifestly present. It is like the salt in water and the glue in color. [It is there, though not distinguishable as an individual entity.] When the eye is properly directed, he will find that it is no other than himself.


On a yonder branch perches a nightingale cheerfully singing;
The sun is warm, and a soothing breeze blows, on the bank the willows are green;
The ox is there all by himself, nowhere is he to hide himself;
The splendid head decorated with stately horns what painter can reproduce him?




Catching the Ox


Long lost in the wilderness, the boy has at last found the ox and his hands are on him. But, owing to the overwhelming pressure of the outside world, the ox is hard to keep under control. He constantly longs for the old sweet-scented field. The wild nature is still unruly, and altogether refuses to be broken. If the oxherd wishes to see the ox completely in harmony with himself, he has surely to use the whip freely.

With the energy of his whole being, the boy has at last taken hold of the ox:
But how wild his will, how ungovernable his power!
At times he struts up a plateau,
When lo! he is lost again in a misty unpenetrable mountain-pass.




Herding the Ox


When a thought moves, another follows, and then another-an endless train of thoughts is thus awakened. Through enlightenment all this turns into truth; but falsehood asserts itself when confusion prevails. Things oppress us not because of an objective world, but because of a self-deceiving mind. Do not let the nose-string loose, hold it tight, and allow no vacillation.

The boy is not to separate himself with his whip and tether,
Lest the animal should wander away into a world of defilements;
When the ox is properly tended to, he will grow pure and docile;
Without a chain, nothing binding, he will by himself follow the oxherd.




Coming Home on the Ox's Back


The struggle is over; the man is no more concerned with gain and loss. He hums a rustic tune of the woodman, he sings simple songs of the village-boy. Saddling himself on the ox's back, his eyes are fixed on things not of the earth, earthy. Even if he is called, he will not turn his head; however enticed he will no more be kept back.

Riding on the animal, he leisurely wends his way home:
Enveloped in the evening mist, how tunefully the flute vanishes away!
Singing a ditty, beating time, his heart is filled with a joy indescribable!
That he is now one of those who know, need it be told?




The Ox Forgotten, Leaving the Man Alone


The dharmas are one and the ox is symbolic. When you know that what you need is not the snare or set-net but the hare or fish, it is like gold separated from the dross, it is like the moon rising out of the clouds. The one ray of light serene and penetrating shines even before days of creation.

Riding on the animal, he is at last back in his home,
Where lo! the ox is no more; the man alone sits serenely.
Though the red sun is high up in the sky, he is still quietly dreaming,
Under a straw-thatched roof are his whip and rope idly lying.




The Ox and the Man Both Gone out of Sight


All confusion is set aside, and serenity alone prevails; even the idea of holiness does not obtain. He does not linger about where the Buddha is, and as to where there is no Buddha he speedily passes by. When there exists no form of dualism, even a thousand-eyed one fails to detect a loop-hole. A holiness before which birds offer flowers is but a farce.

All is empty-the whip, the rope, the man, and the ox:
Who can ever survey the vastness of heaven?
Over the furnace burning ablaze, not a flake of snow can fall:
When this state of things obtains, manifest is the spirit of the ancient master.



Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source


From the very beginning, pure and immaculate, the man has never been affected by defilement. He watches the growth of things, while himself abiding in the immovable serenity of nonassertion. He does not identify himself with the maya-like transformations [that are going on about him], nor has he any use of himself [which is artificiality]. The waters are blue, the mountains are green; sitting alone, he observes things undergoing changes.

To return to the Origin, to be back at the Source--already a false step this!
Far better it is to stay at home, blind and deaf, and without much ado;
Sitting in the hut, he takes no cognizance of things outside,
Behold the streams flowing-whither nobody knows; and the flowers vividly red-for whom are they?




Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands


His thatched cottage gate is closed, and even the wisest know him not. No glimpses of his inner life are to be caught; for he goes on his own way without following the steps of the ancient sages. Carrying a gourd [1] he goes out into the market, leaning against a staff [2] he comes home. He is found in company with wine-bibbers and butchers, he and they are all converted into Buddhas.

Bare-chested and bare-footed, he comes out into the market-place;
Daubed with mud and ashes, how broadly he smiles!
There is no need for the miraculous power of the gods,
For he touches, and lo! the dead trees are in full bloom.

1. Symbol of emptiness (sunyata).

2. No extra property he has, for he knows that the desire to possess is the curse of human life.



PDF Files of the Ox Herding Pictures

Here are three different versions of the Ox Herding pictures. Studying the different versions of the texts may help to clarify and enrich the meaning of each step on the path.

Version 1 - illustrations and text by Kakuan Shien, as interpreted by D. T. Suzuki

Version 2 - illustrations by Tomikichiro Tokuriki, text by Kakuan Shien, as interpreted by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

Version 3 - illustrations by Tomikichiro Tokuriki, text by Chögyam Trungpa



D. T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism, Anchor Books, 1956, Chapter VIII, p127

Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Tuttle and Co, 1957, p165

Chögyam Trungpa , Mudra: Early Songs and Poems, Shambhala Publications, 1972, p73

Terebess web site ... a large collection of ox-herding pictures and texts