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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 2: The Pictures

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 3

Who amongst us has looked upon the Oxherding pictures of Zen without being seized by wonder and trepidation?

Who has not asked himself, "What is this guy doing whipping this animal? Is this a Zen guy?"

And would we be startled to learn that many of us, after scrolling forward to the tenth picture, have looked with much surprise and not a little consternation upon the figure of an overweight and obviously drunken slob who is touted by the text to be the goal of the Opus. Would not some of us at least have murmured in confusion, "But this is what I was before I came to Zen."

And is there amongst us a person so sufficiently undiscerning that he has failed to notice that the animalís nature or gender cannot be identified? What kind of animal is it, anyway? A sacred cow, a stubborn ox, a raging bull?

In all of religious literature we find nothing quite like the Oxherding pictures of Zen. We see, in picture after picture, a beast being tormented for no other apparent purpose than the pleasure of it; a drunken, slovenly climax to the discipline; and much textual comment that is contradictory and confusing. Is the animal a symbol of the Buddha Self? If so why is it being beaten? Is it a symbol of the ego? Why then is it being sought? Does it represent the devoteeís wild "animal" nature? But why, when we meet it, does it already have a ring in its nose... with a rope attached, yet?

Naturally, we are justified in wondering why this oeuvre is served up to us as instructional material. Just what are we expected to learn from these scenes?

The answer, unfortunately, is not much. No.., at least in the way theyíve been presented, there is not much to learn at all.

Since Chinese Master Ching Chu (Seikyo in Japanese), of the twelfth century Southern Song Dynasty, followed the dictum that a picture is worth a thousand words and first drew his illustrations, there seems always to have been contradictory interpretations.

The original drawings and the concepts they were intended to illustrate were reinterpreted and amended according to several competing viewpoints. On one hand, an emphasis was placed upon the Daoist version of the Enlightened Sage - the fat, jolly, inebriated fellow who "lets himself go" simply because heís got no other particular destination in mind.

On the other hand, well-meaning righteous persons "cleaned up" up the series to render it more ethically acceptable and spiritually understandable, in accordance, of course, with the depth of their ethics and understanding, a depth which, sadly, was more suited to the nature and profundity of turnips.

We ought not be surprised. Secularizing distortions occur whenever the uninitiated are permitted to impose their will upon the performance of religious rituals or foist their crass interpretations upon spiritual esoterica. Grape juice for wine. Bloodless bullfights. That sort of thing.

What little we know about Ching Chuís original concept is significant: the series contained five pictures; the animal in question changed color from black to white; and the series ended with the Empty Circle, a symbol of the Union of Opposites, the non-dualistic state in which there is no more Yin and Yang nor any of the balancing tensions or qualities which the black and white commas represent.

We may also comfortably be assured that Master Ching Chu, as did other Southern Chinese, held the ox in great esteem. In rice-paddy country, the ox and not the horse was the "yana" (vehicle) par excellence. It was so agriculturally vital, being used exclusively for plowing and as a draught animal, that it was virtually deified. There were ox cults and ox temples; and in many areas eating the flesh of the ox was prohibited except during an annual harvest celebration in which two bulls, the entrants of competitive communities, were pitted against each other. The losing bull would be slaughtered and eaten in a grand communal meal during which the women danced with maenad frenzy around the victorious bull. To Master Ching Chu, there could have been nothing evil about the ox.

Three other teachers, not quite content with his version, altered the series:

Tzu-te Hui (Jitoku ki in Japanese) added a sixth picture which illustrated a post-Empty Circle commitment to the Bodhisattva ideal of working to help others while remaining emotionally unattached to worldly affairs. Tzu-te Hui retained the animalís black to white transformation. His series of pictures is, unfortunately, lost.

Disastrously, Master Guo-an Shih Yuan (Kaku-an Shi-en in Japanese) enlarged the series to ten pictures, which included two post-Empty Circle pictures. He also eliminated the animalís color transformation, a feature of intrinsic importance. His final picture showed two human figures one of whom is fat and slovenly dressed. For a reason known only to God and perhaps Master Guo-an Shih Yuan, ninety-nine percent of those human beings who look at this tenth picture assume that the fat fellow ("the wine-bibber") is the subject not only of the tenth picture but also of the previous nine. He is not. The other fellow, the Oxherder, is. Most versions which use the ten-picture series of Guo-an Shih Yuan as their model not only mistakenly emphasize the wrong character in the tenth picture; but some, in fact, go so far as to eliminate the Oxherder altogether from the concluding picture of his own series! The series reproduced below was artfully drawn by a Japanese Zen priest, Shubun, in the fifteenth century.

An unknown author contributed the third series which apparently followed Master Ching Chuís original five pictures more closely in that it, at least, makes some sense and is not vapid in content. A later edition of this work, complete with the original comments of poet Pu Ming, was published in 1585 by Chu Hung who supplied an introductory passage. In this series of ten pictures, the animalís color does change from black to white; a female figure is introduced; two constellations are depicted; and the series ends with the Empty Circle. This version became the popular model in China. Regrettably, the series clearly invests a disproportionate amount of space to the task of taming the unruly animal and is cryptic in its brief allusions to the goal of the work. Chu Hungís sixteenth century version is reproduced below.

Additionally, we shall refer to an eleven-stanza commentary given by the Venerable Xu Yun in the first half of the Twentieth century. Unfortunately we lack his referent pictures.

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