Sandra Holmes Dharma Talk: Intro to the Ox-Herding Pictures


Introduction to the Ox-Herding Pictures

by Sandra Jishu Holmes
Talk given to Zen Group at Naropa on Feb. 6, 1993
About a year ago I started studying the ox herding pictures with Sensei Bernie. The ox herding pictures were developed by the Chinese. The Chinese are a very earthy and picture-loving people and tradition tells us that a master ching-chu first drew the ox herding pictures in the middle of the 11th century. He believed that the pictures would speak to the people at their level of understanding. You all know the Chinese proverb that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” These pictures are the story of man’s search for enlightenment, or as one commentator calls them, zen buddhism’s version of “the pilgrim’s progress.”

Anyway, zen has always had a great suspicion of words (which has been expressed beautifully in words by the 6th patriarch, Hui-neng).

outside the teaching, apart from tradition,
not founded on words or letters.
pointing directly to the human mind.
seeing into one’s nature and attaining buddhahood.

That’s a beautiful description of zazen. So, with this great suspicion of words, the zen masters have developed a beautiful and very poetic language which is a complete mystery to the casual reader. An example:

A student asks “Who is the Buddha?”
The teacher barks, “A shit stick!”

A child asks, “Is there a Santa Claus?”
Scrooge answers, “Bah! Humbug!”

I’m not saying that Scrooge was a zen master. But you can see that relying on words can get you into a lot of trouble.

This whole language business is one of the reasons I wanted to study these pictures with Sensei. I am not a Chinese or a Japanese sage or even a western poet. And I don’t have the sensibilities of that culture. I wanted to use these pictures to see if I could develop my own vocabulary for talking about zen. Because, in the end, although the words are just the finger pointing to the moon, you see, not the moon itself, and although the mystic experience has been called ineffable, beyond description, we still, if we want to be Bodhisattvas, must talk about it. And I wanted to find my own language for talking about the spiritual journey of the “ordinary man.”

And that’s another reason why I wanted to study these pictures with Sensei. The legends of the zen masters make the path seem so unattainable to the ordinary woman/person. It seems like you have to have special spiritual gifts to attain the way. That the zen masters are the olympic stars of the spiritual path and where does that leave the rest of us? Are we doomed to be bench sitters for the rest of our lives? Are there “farm teams” of the spiritual path that we can join? This was one of my burning issues. Do these pictures? To the zen koans? Apply to me…. an ordinary woman of the 20th century? And if they do, can I develop a language to talk about them and share them with others? A language that is my own and not just spitting back undigested material as if by rote memory in a classroom. A language that is based on my own personal spiritual journey. And although I haven’t finished my study of these pictures with Sensei, it really has helped me in these ways and looking back over my motes I’m able to see a chronicle of my own growth and understanding in just this past year.

So, anyway, to get back to the ox herding pictures, in the 11th century, in china master ching-chu drew 5 pictures in which the ox starts out black and progresses to white, indicating the pilgrim’s progress so to speak. Many versions of the ox pictures were subsequently drawn containing from 5 to 8 pictures usually ending in an empty circle, which implies that the realization of the oneness of life (that is the extinction of every concept of self and other) is the ultimate goal of zen.

Then in about the middle of the 12th century a zen master named kuo-an or kakuan in Japanese, developed a series of ten pictures and added a poem for each one. His version goes beyond the imply circle and he makes it clear that the highest goal of zen is to return and live in the mundane world and live in perfect freedom among ordinary men and women and inspire them with his compassion and wisdom to walk the way of the buddha. This is the bodhisattva ideal, the vision of Mahayana buddhism. This progression is shown in the lotus sutra as well. Until the buddha revealed the teaching of the dharma blossom, that is the lotus sutra, the disciples thought that the goal was extinction (that empty circle). This is called the arhat ideal. The goal of individual liberation. But buddha shows in the lotus sutra that this is not the end of the path. Until the bodhisattva has helped all sentient beings enter the pure land or attain the way, her job is not finished.

So these pictures represent everywoman’s path to enlightenment, her journey from darkness to light, from disintegration to integration, from confusion to peace. And it is not just the path for the spiritual olympians. It is one of the most deeply rooted human instinct to seek our true nature. These ox pictures describe the spiritual path of each one of us.

These ox herding pictures have captured the imagination of artists and poets for centuries and there are many ancient and contemporary versions of them. The zen community has a scroll painted by a modern Japanese artist which presents the ox herding pictures as 12 and relates them to the months of the year. (so hotei becomes Santa Claus in December).

Is everyone here, familiar with the ox herding pictures? Or have you at least seen one or two versions of them? If not, you can see drawings rendered by a modern Japanese artist named gyodusei jikihara at the end of the three pillars of zen by Kaplau roshi.

So what the ox herding pictures are doing is dividing what can’t be divided into 5 or 8 or 10 or 12 segments. Because that’s the way our minds work. It’s hard for us to take in the whole thing. So we divide emptiness up into little pieces, or we divide reality or enlightenment or delusion up into little pieces. It’s all the same. That way we can talk about it. We can talk about little pieces of it.

Then we can gather these 10 divisions (we’re going to be talking about the series of 10 pictures) into four phases. The first is the awakening to the quest. Sensei calls this the shift, or the remembrance of wholeness. Everything begins with a sense of need for integration or wholeness. There arises a strong desire to pursue the quest. Sakyamuni-Buddha said, when he saw the morning star and had his enlightenment experience or daikensho, “how wonderful! How wonderful! Everything just as it is, is enlightened, but because of our upside down view we don’t realize it” so we all must go on this long journey to find out that all along we were enlightened anyway. In the surangama sutra there’s the story of princess enyadatta…….

So when the shift takes place we recognize a need to realize and actualize our wholeness and we start on the quest.

The second phase could be called the struggle leading to integration or wholeness. This is not easy. Now we have made the shift and found the path. What ensues is a long battle of conflict, struggle and lonely pursuit. Working with your own stuff. Your own peculiar karma.

The third phase is a description of the enlightened state . The great surrender of the self and the discovery of the one, wholeness.

But this is not the end, in the fourth phase, the return to the world we see that oneness and manyness, are the same thing. The mundane world is the world of enlightenment. The everyday ordinary world is holy. And now we return to the marketplace to share the good news with others who are ready to make that shift. But since this is not easy to grasp we must each make our own long arduous journey to right here… this very moment.