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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 1: Introduction

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Bellica pax, vulnus dulce, suave malum.
(A warring peace, a sweet wound, a mild evil.)
      - St. Bernard of Clairvaux



Hui Neng, Manolete, and the Oxherding Pictures of Zen

Hui Neng's mummy
Hui Neng's mummy. This photo was taken before the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard's damage to the remains in the 1960's. The mummy had to be reassembled and lacquered heavily after the damage.

On the 27th day of August in the year 713, old Hui Neng, the Sixth and last Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, bid his followers farewell, laid himself down on his bed and in the early morning hours of August 28th, gently died of what is conveniently termed natural causes.

On the 27th day of August, l947, a scant twelve hundred and thirty-four years later, Manuel "Manolete" Rodriguez, after insisting upon wearing a bridal-white suit of lights, had his groin punctured by fifteen inches of the Miura bull Islero’s horn. The black bull, already mortally wounded by the matador, died quickly. Manolete would not die until the next day, August 28th.

It is because of Hui Neng’s death that we Dharma descendants commemorate our dead on August 28th of every year. Only aficionados of the Corrida (the Running) have noticed that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Manolete’s death.

More than just this peculiar coincidence of date connects a matador and a Zen Master. They are united by metaphor and the facts of their work, the faena of harmonizing Two Minds, Eros and Logos, Yin and Yang, dark and light, and human desire with divine will. They must conjugate Shakti and Shiva: power and the law power obeys. And they must be willing to sacrifice everything they possess in order to qualify for this sacred labor.

Of course, since the essential fact of their activity is, or at least should be, spiritual, both are priests. When their motivations are not purely spiritual and salvific, the Zen master is no more than a wretched pedant and the matador, a professional daredevil.

In the weeks to come we will investigate Spiritual Alchemy, the advanced or "masterly" level of Zen’s Path, and we will examine the often-reproduced Oxherding pictures of Zen which allude to this spiritual discipline. We’ll discuss the bullfight and its relationship to the first critical goal of Alchemy: Androgyny or Divine Marriage - the Union of Opposites; and we’ll review the astrological myth of the Spinning Maiden (Vega) and Oxherder (Altair) and this myth’s functional representation in the famous rubbing-stone of China’s Baiyunguan (White Cloud Daoist Temple). There is no doubt that we will raise many more questions than we answer. Investigations of this type are invariably like Hydras. Lop off one head and find two growing in its place.

With the clear understanding that only God decides who shall be admitted to his Bridal Chamber, we’ll regard the ascent to the Chamber as a kind of ladder. During the series we’ll give a few preparatory exercises which the reader may wish to practice; and, at the conclusion of this series, we’ll provide a specific alchemical or mystical discipline, as rungs in the ladder, which he or she may wish to follow. The ascent is not an easy one and, since Grace is the ultimate determinant, there are no guarantees that even after assiduous practice, the climber will be rewarded with success.

Courtship, no matter how arduously pursued, and the rules of engagement, no matter how faithfully obeyed, do not always insure blissful years of comfortable maturity.

Sometimes, at the Moment of Truth, the bull suddenly tosses his head and the matador joins him in death’s final orgasmic union.


Manolete's corpse. Photo taken in Linares, Spain on August 28, 1947.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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