A Meditation on Our Broken World, Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures, & the Intimate Way

A Meditation on Our Broken World, Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures, & the Intimate Way February 18, 2018




Mapping Our Spiritual Journey
A Meditation on Our Broken World, Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures, & the Intimate Way

18 February 2018
Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church

Costa Mesa, California

James Ishmael Ford

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Vision without action is a dream
Action without vision is a nightmare.

Japanese proverb

Recently I was contacted by someone who explained he’d been made a spiritual teacher by the Tibetan master Padmasambhava. As that particular master has been dead for about twelve hundred years, I admit I was suspicious. He then went on to explain how there are serious problems in my spiritual tradition, Zen, and particularly with the discipline that I principally teach, koan introspection. I’ve been a practitioner on this way for nearly fifty years and a teacher for more than twenty, so hearing there were problems, well, no surprise.

He then went on to explain that real spiritual practices, like, he said, koans, are all “mechanical.” You stick yourself in one end and enlightenment comes out the other. Kind of like a meat grinder. He continued how the discipline as it is usually taught isn’t quite right. And that’s why not everyone who practices koan Zen gets enlightened. He then generously offered his fix, sort of a spiritual version of a computer patch. I replied I wasn’t interested, thank you. My mother taught me always to be polite. And then I blocked him. That’s another computer term.

The exchange did set me to thinking, however. Not about sure-fire fixes for our spiritual practices. Well, a little about that. But, mostly about our paths themselves, the whys and the ways we bring intentionality to the matter of life and death and meaning. It set me to thinking about what I’d call our maps of the spiritual life.

Of course, with a talk to a bunch of Unitarian Universalists beginning with some definitions of terms might be in order. So, first that messy and complicated word “spiritual.” It can mean so many things. That’s both the joy and the difficulty of language and particularly words. We could spend all our time here unpacking “spiritual.” But, let me simply summarize. Spiritual has its metaphorical roots in breath. And, something I find really interesting is how in fact pretty much all cultures and their religions use this primary metaphor of breath for that quest for meaning and purpose in life.

I take some particular significance out of that near, perhaps actually universal use of spiritual for the great quest of our human hearts. And that brings up a second term necessary for this reflection. I first stumbled upon the term “perennialism” in Aldous Huxley’s lovely book the Perennial Philosophy, which I found in my mid adolescence. For me in my youth searching for an intellectually honest spiritual path, which meant to me not obviously conflicting with the natural world, this book together with Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness,  and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience outlined the general direction for my quest for meaning and purpose in life. It definitely doesn’t end there. In fact, today I have serious criticisms of all three books. But they were how I started.

That noted, I have a complicated relationship with perennialism. On the one hand, I think it broadly points in the right direction when it suggests there are universal truths that each religion touch. This insight is a big reason I would eventually find myself a Unitarian Universalist. On the other hand, it seems pretty obvious to me that there is not a single mountain with all religions following their separate paths up to the same summit. Lots of different mountains. Pretty obvious to anyone who reads more than headlines about religions. And, with that, some of these religions, I find, are more useful than others. Which is probably why Zen Buddhism and its disciplines remains the core of my actual interior life.

Looking broadly, I find there are currents of religion that seem pretty obviously rooted in our biology. Making those things “universal,” at least so far as humans are concerned. And if I read that correctly, I hope it would also be obvious these are insights available without any religion at all. Still, it is the primacy project of religion. And with that another definition. Religion, I find, consists of those attempts within cultures to coalesce their collective wisdom about meaning.

Finding meaning, awakening, salvation, all those different words that point to some great healing of some terrible rift are in fact about our totally human, absolutely natural sense of dis-connection, and with that, our deep ability to see into our connections. So. The real stuff, authentic spirituality, religion that matters, is all about, as the Zen teacher Dosho Port tells us, “nondual embodiment.” Everything else is extras

And with that, spiritual maps. We’ve well been warned by Alfred Korzybski that “the map is not the territory.” And, Gregory Bateson makes sure we get it by adding “the name is not the thing named.” The reason that I close to immediately blocked my astrally ordained spiritual master was not the astral thing, although given my taste buds in such matters that could have been enough. But because he reduced my spiritual path to a mechanical thing that just needed some oil at the juncture of some gears. That let me know he had no clue. There are spiritual disciplines. They can be enormously useful. I’ve given my life to one. But, they are not mechanical. They are organic. I would add they are also human things, developed by people, and subject to absue. And, always, always, they only help. They only point, they only shepherd, they only guide.

Two other things have to happen, not directly connected to the spiritual technologies we take up. One is volitional. We, that is you or me, we have to want, we have to be willing, we have to open our hearts and minds to the project. Or, to use another difficult word, we have to surrender into the process. And, still, that isn’t quite enough. Then, in some mysterious and frankly unfathomable, unmappable, unpredictable way, the insight, the opening, the grace that allows us to see the whole thing in all its particulars, happens when it happens. To quote the scriptures of the Western tradition, the spirit rests where it will.

All this said: messy, map isn’t the territory, spirit rests where it will, many truths: there are, nonetheless, genuine pointers for those of us who wish to walk the paths of spirit, who seek to know with our own lives the deeper realities of this life. There are maps we can trust. Trust, that is, as far as maps can be trusted. Words, I hope that echo with all sorts of hesitations for anyone who has found their favorite GPS map taking them in an endless loop at one time or another. If we use maps, we need to remember, every once in a while, to lift our heads and look around. Get that bigger picture. Do that and then these maps can be quite helpful.

Possibly among the oldest strata of stories that help us mark out a spiritual path is “Hero’s Journey.” Similarly, the Greek mysteries rites, and here in the modern West, the life of Jesus turned into a cycle, as a path for us all.

One of the most compelling maps for me is the sixteenth century Spanish Christian mystic John of the Cross’s map described as the ascent of Mount Carmel. While over the years many have found John Bunyan’s seventeenth century classic, sometimes called the first English language novel, the Pilgrim’s Progress enormously helpful.

And, bottom line, the map I’ve found most useful over the many years comes out of the Zen tradition. It’s called by several names, most commonly either the Ten Oxherding Pictures, or even more simply, the Ten Bulls.

The metaphor of a bull or ox as the image of ourselves and our hidden hearts is ancient. In the putative earliest strata of Buddhist texts the Mahagopalaka Sutta features the image of our path as taming a wild calf. The earliest strata of this actual map in Zen appears to be a five-step version by the eleventh century Chinese master Seikyo, which featured a gradual whitening of the image of the bull until there is simply an empty circle. This conclusion is “corrected” by a rough contemporary, another Zen master Jitoku Ki, who adds in a sixth picture after that experience of emptiness. Also, there’s another map with eight pictures.

But the version that has captured most of us on the path, who find in it a true representation of our way was formulated by a twelfth century Chinese Rinzai Zen master, Kakuan Shien. It became wildly popular. And eventually it made its way to Japan. And, by way of the early translator and interpreter of Zen to the West, D. T. Suzuki, to us. Today there are numerous commentaries on the text, starting with those from Kakuan. Rummaging around my bookshelves I found five by contemporary teachers, Chinese, Japanese, and American. It’s a perennial on the perennial way.

Let’s quickly look at this map of our human hearts, of our longing, and our finding.


It begins with noticing something is missing. For each of us this might be something different. For me at first it was all about God. At the beginning it was “is there a god?”

And, then, somehow, subtly there was a shift, as I realized that God didn’t have to be either the creator and sustainer, or even the destroyer, but rather as I wrote back in seminary, when I was much smarter than I am now, “God is a hole in the language into which we throw all our hopes and fears.” Hole, gaping wide. Although one of my professors helped me on the way to knowing a bit less, when she offered that, “Yes, God is a whole in the language…” Whole as in completion. Although, I’ve long since learned any so-called completion only leads to something new. Whatever, we begin. In the images of the tradition we name that longing of our hearts the Ox.


We find some traces. A footprint, maybe some spoor. For me, again, it was probably that shift of attitude from “is” to “what.” There is a mysterious turning when we launch on the spiritual journey, if we pay attention, if we allow our hearts to open to the possibilities. Then it turns out possibilities abound.


Then, if we’re lucky, we confront the Ox. The power and beauty as terrible as it is, well, it presents. Maybe its seeing your new born child for the first time. Possibly it is a kiss. Maybe it’s finding a job that is more than a job. It can happen walking in the woods or on the beach. It can, and I find this most compelling, it can happen in prison or a foxhole. However it presents that confrontation with reality, with that Ox, changes everything.


In Zen there are many arguments, endless apparently about whether you practice hard and then get enlightened, or, you get enlightened and then practice hard. What I find is that practice and awakening are intimately connected, but not in any causal way. They are two facets of the same thing. But, with a glimpse of the real, those of us committed to the way, we find our hearts calling, and redouble the disciplines of the heart. For me they are summarized as sit down, shut up, pay attention. And, then, repeat. Each of us needs to find that practice which is right for us.


Here is the long path where we begin to find the disciplines are not so much rules that contain us but the boundaries of our own heart. They are permeable, we cross freely from inside to out, and outside to in. The whole world becomes ours. Here we discover the play of the world.


And with that we hear the distant song. It may be faint. But, it enough. And we begin to follow it home.


Here we forget all the stuff and bother. In the images we find a simple hut. It’s all we need.


The image is an empty circle. Here we discover that nameless place the Daoist poem describes. “The (way) that can be told/Is not the eternal (way)/The name that can be named/Is not the eternal name.//The unnamable is the eternally real.” In many Eastern spiritual traditions, this is the summum bonum. In fact, as I mentioned, in the earliest version of the Oxherding pictures, for many it ends here. But. But. That would be too bad.


The image clutters up a bit. Here we get a picture of nature. Here we find our mother. Or, if you prefer, our Father. Me, I love that continuing of the Dao de jing I just cited, where we see “Naming is the origin/Of all particular things.” Everything named. Everything authentic, if passing. You. Me. But now discovered with new eyes. Now held with open hands. Now encountered with a different kind of love.

And, yet, even that isn’t the end.


The tenth Oxherding picture shows a fat man encountering the world. In some versions of the pictures the figure is actually walking into a marketplace. One traditional commentary says it is “returning to the world with bliss bestowing hands.” The small inside Buddhist joke is that the image is of Putei or Hotei. He’s the fat monk with the bag of gifts sometimes called the “Laughing Buddha.” Not the Buddha of history, but a Zen monk who will become the Buddha of the next age. Part of the joke is that he represents our common inheritance, our common future. We’re all the Buddha of a next age.

So, that’s one mapping of the spiritual path. One that I’ve found particularly helpful. And maybe you will too. But, let me add in a little bit of direction. Another map of something important in my past was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Perhaps you know them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They proved to be an amazing gift to people helping the dying, and, also for many who were dying.

Except that people quickly settled into these “are” the five stages. First you deny. And then so on up to acceptance. But, people turned out to be messy. She named five true things. But, people did them as they wanted. And in no particular order. And, also, and this is important:often returning or starting over.

Well, I suggest we may find the ten Oxherding pictures are equally messy. I’ve known people who’ve manifested that returning to the world without ever having taken on a spiritual path. Not many. But. And, well, pick your picture, it might be the beginning. And then you might discover you’re jumping around. Probably will. That map, as Alfred Korzybski told us, is not the territory. Unlike the guidance of that astrally anointed spiritual teacher, the way is not mechanical.

As T. S. Eliot sang into our hearts, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The spiritual way.

And. One more thing. These are hard times. This is a particularly difficult moment. There’s a Japanese saying, I repeat all the time. I need to hear it. Maybe you do, as well. Vision without action is simply a dream. However, action without vision becomes a nightmare.

You want to be of use in this world? You want to heal the wounds of your own heart? Well, there are maps on that way. The real ones all take you, take us, into the mysteries of intimacy. How are we connected? How are we different?

Find this and you will know what to do.

The intimate way.


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