The Ten Ox Herding Stations – Zen semiology
The original pictures of the Ten Ox Herding date back to a Ch'an master in the Sung dynasty in China (1126-1279 AD). It has its spiritual roots in the early Buddhist texts in China. The stations depict an imagery of an illusion that needs to be subdued before attaining enlightenment by an ardent seeker, a herder in this instance. The ox symbolizes the ordinary mind and the herder symbolizes the seeker, both within and it shows how both these imageries merge at the final stage of realization, losing their line of identities and realizing the ground of one’s own being.
Searching the ox
A true and ardent seeker embarks on a spiritual journey within, searching the ox that is lost or not found. The seeker travels all over in search of the ox, crossing many villages, farmlands, dry contours, rivers and lakes but is unable to find the ox. This implies the ordinary dual nature of one’s mind and how one feels lost in the original nature of one’s own mind, with growing delusions of one’s own mind.
Finding the tracks of the ox
At a point, the seeker finds the tracks of the lost ox in a wetland. The seeker is able to identify its imprints, as the seeker is so fond of the ox though the ox is not to be seen in the vicinity. This implies that the seeker tastes the first insights to the seeker’s own nature by way of his searching.
Catching a glimpse of the ox
On intent pursuing the seeker is finally able to catch a glimpse of the ox that is lost. The seeker is overwhelmed to seeing the ox, even momentarily. Confidence grows on on glimpsing the ox. This implies the experiencing of transcendence of subject and object, the duality of one’s existence at the ordinary or relative level, through direct ‘seeing’.
Catching the ox
The seeker reaches the ox but the ox rebels making it difficult for the seeker to hold it. Even though the ox is familiar with the seeker back home, here it challenges the seeker, pulling the seeker hither and thither. The seeker becomes frustrated, but continues trying to reign in the ox, unwilling to let loose of the hold.
Taming the ox
In spite of the spirited protest of the ox, the seeker through his ardent and tactful approach and his perseverance is finally able to tame the ox. Now the ox is at ease with the seeker, both supporting each other. It implies the seeker’s ability to look into the true nature of the seeker. There is a ground of being that the seeker meets with the ox so comfortably without any resistance. There is a level of consciousness that begins to touch upon the realm beyond the duality of one’s own mind.
Riding on the ox
The struggle is finally over. Both the ox and seeker are in unison, traveling towards home. There is no effort needed as both know the way home. Though there is union it implies that there is still a shade of duality, as ox and herder, but both becoming one moving towards the home.
Ox forgotten, only the self
Now there is an important moment where the ‘other’ is forgotten. There is no ox on which the seeker is riding. The journey of ox and the seeker becomes one towards home. It implies that the duality is finally transcended, beyond subject and object, becoming one and the same. The taste of bliss is relished but the journey still continues.
Ox and self, both forgotten
Here is the highest point of union where the demarcation of both the ox and seeker is lost completely. There is liberation and letting go. The unconditional is experienced without the presence of an experience. In other words, mind is present without any identity of object as there is no grasping and everything is spontaneously liberated in the absolute nature of one’s mind.
Return to the source
Now the seeking is absolutely no more as there is no seeker or the ox. There is only the being. There is only a mere ground of being, which is the natural source. It is uncreated, unborn, and is the one that could never be lost. It is without beginning and without end, the nature of all phenomena.
Returning to the market place
With the job well done, one continues to go on through one’s living, but now as a totally transformed being. There is nothing to renounce, nothing to attain. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, just simply be. There continues an ordinary living with extraordinary realization. One goes on to live in the market place but for the realized one it’s not different from any other place because, there is only living, no person, no place either. It implies there is total selfless living, only helping other beings, sharing the same place.
“We are here to overcome the illusion of our separation,” Vietnamese Zen master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh has said . Yes, it is true. Please do try!
Picture source: https://terebess.hu/english/oxherd0.html, paintings traditionally attributed to Tensho Shubun (1414-1463)
Paintings traditionally attributed to 天章周文 Tenshō Shūbun (1414-1463)