Kuoan Shiyuan’s Ten Oxherding Pictures

Kuoan Shiyuan’s Ten Oxherding Pictures May 15, 2018



Kuoan Shiyuan’s Ten Oxherding Pictures

In Zen’s history there have been a number of attempts at mapping the spiritual journey. The metaphor of taming an ox has been the most popular of these maps. During the Song dynasty (racing between the middle of the tenth century of our common era and the last decades of the thirteenth) as Zen as we understand it today began to take shape, there were several such attempts showing an oxherd and that ox.

In the eleventh century Ching-chu created a map with five images, with each the ox grew ever whiter until in the fifth picture there was nothing left but a blank page. (In the majority of versions of all the maps the image is framed within a circle.) Zide Huihui followed this progression but adding a sixth picture, with an image beyond pure emptiness. Which, as a Zen person, I find critically important. Although the quest for purity does persist. So, a third series with poems by Puming, who other than his name is an unknown author, presented a map in the sixteenth century of ten pictures culminating in the experience of emptiness. Demonstrating the constant temptation for those of us on the way to drop into the great emptiness.

However, what many consider the mature form of the images and accompanying poems was a series of ten oxherding pictures created by a twelfth century Chinese master, Kuoan Shiyuan. And these are the images that have captured my heart, and which I consider a true map of the great way.

Kuoan’s own illustrations are now lost, although the pictures included here are believed to be copies of his original work. His poems became the standard versions of the oxherding map in Japan. The images and Kuoan’s poems were introduced to the English-speaking world by D. T. Suzuki in his 1935 book, the Manual of Zen Buddhism. Alan Watts in his first book, published in 1936, the Spirit of Zen through his easily accessible interpretation of Suzuki’s scholarly work, considerably widened access to the images. And then in 1956 Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki classic volume, Zen Bones: a Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings pretty much guaranteed the images would enter the heart of anyone seriously interested in Zen.

The poems here are my free paraphrase based on reflecting on several translations & my fifty years following Zen’s great way.



One. Searching for the ox

Wandering through the wild grasses, I throw myself into the quest.
Tracing along many rivers, climbing endless mountains, the path winds on.
Finally, completely exhausted, I find myself overcome by the power of not knowing.
In the evening dark I hear only crickets chirping.

Two. Discovering the footprints

Then on the riverbank in the shade of the forest I see a slight footprint
In the midst of the sweet-smelling grasses I see the trace.
Deep within the mountains I find them.
All as plain as the nose on one’s face, I turn my face to the heavens.

Three. Seeing the ox

I hear the song of the nightingale.
In the warmth of sun, in the gentle breeze, along the shore willows are green,
There is the ox. There is no place to hide.
Beautiful and present. No artist can capture the image.

Four. Catching the ox

There is a struggle, but I grab hold of the ox.
It’s will and power are inexhaustible.
Strutting high among the misting clouds.
And in a moment lost in a mountain pass.

Five. Taming the ox

Both whip and tether are required.
Or the ox will wander down the dusty road.
But properly cared for, gentleness appears.
Then without constraints, the ox willingly follows.

Six. Riding the ox home

Now riding the ox, I turn toward home.
Playing my flute as we pass through the evening mist.
Keeping time and singing, my heart filled with joy..
The world joins in that song.

Seven. Transcending the ox

Riding the ox I return home.
The ox vanishes, and there is only one sitting in peace.
The sun rises. And I sit in serenity
Within my hut, whip and tether are no longer necessary.

Eight. Transcending ox and self

Whip, tether, person, and ox collapse into the great empty
Who can take its measure now?
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Realized this is the secret heart of the ancestors.

Nine. Attaining the source

Returning to the source – already too many words.
I never needed to leave home to find it.
Sitting within my home, unconcerned with what plays outside.
The river flows and that flower is bright red.

Ten. Returning to the world

Dressed in simplicity I return to the world.
Covered in the dust of the world I am one with the crowd.
This is the miracle of ordinariness.
Blessings follow upon blessings.



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