Taming the Wild Ox
Ten Oxherding Pictures, by Zen Master Kakuan, China, 12th C.
These oxherder images provide a beautiful metaphor for the experience of a practitioner of meditation. The original images and a translated version of each of the associated 12th century poems will be provided in the next 10 posts. These will be followed by a short commentary by me – inspired by the gnostic work I’ve done over the years.
1. The Search for the Bull*
In the pasture of this world,
I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers,
lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
Comment: The bull never has been lost.
What need is there to search?
Only because of separation from my true nature,
I fail to find him.
In the confusion of the senses I lose even his tracks.
Far from home, I see many crossroads,
but which way is the right one I know not.
Greed and fear, good and bad, entangle me.
In the first of this 10 image series we see a boy, searching for his ox. We could say, in our “sleeping” state of consciousness we have lost our connection to our own Being, our spiritual nature; our mind has wandered off, trapped in the relativity and duality of life. The ox can represent the mind or the Being in these images. The four elements are in within this image: water, air, earth (rocks), fire (the boy and the leaves – life force). We live in a world of natural laws. But in this world we can find ourselves, our own mind and emotions, out of our control.
Can we relate to this boy? Perhaps when we sit in meditation our mind chatters no matter which practice of concentration we choose. Our habitual thinking, negative emotions and strings of associated thoughts may keep us preoccupied. Make us question the value of meditation. What is the point? Where is the tranquility? We may find it exhausting and want to stop.
The image and poetry are beautiful. As a practice we could view the image and read the poem. Then, while sitting in “non-thinking,” allow the art to inspire us. We can let our intuition apprehend the meaning rather than the rational mind.
*Translation by: Paul Reps in Zen Flesh Zen Bones, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1989.