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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 2: The Pictures, Cont.

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 2 of 3

Of the two sets of pictures we will display, the first, that of Guo-an Shih Yuan - the one that unfortunately became popular in Japan - is clearly the more unsatisfactory. The animal is presented in contradictory terms - first as the desired Buddha Self and then as the undesirable ego. Such information as it conveys is either banal or incomprehensible.

#1. Searching for the Ox.

The series opens in a standard straightforward manner. The Oxherder is searching for his ox which clearly represents his Buddha Self. The text assures us that the Ox has never really gone anywhere, it is the boy who is lost in his own egoism.


#2. Seeing the Traces.

This picture also conveys a truth. After study and reflection the boy begins to understand the Dharma.


#3. Seeing the Ox.

Again, this is conceptually valid. Through contemplation, through sound and other sensory control, the Oxherder recognizes the Buddha Self within himself.


#4. Catching the Ox.

Here we have a radical departure from the sense of the text. The Ox is no longer the desirable Buddha Self but is instead wild and unruly and "refuses to be broken". The Oxherder must use the whip on the animal. We have often heard, "If while meditating you see a vision of the Buddha, spit in its face and it will go away." The same sort of blasphemous ignorance informs the commentary.


#5. Herding the Ox.

Again, the text refers to the animal as the enemy which must be controlled with tether and whip.


#6. Coming Home on the Ox’s Back.

We return to a plausible explanation of the picture. There is harmony between the Oxherder (the ego) and the Ox (the Buddha Self.)


#7. The Ox Forgotten, Leaving the Man Alone.

The man is at one with the world, he no longer sees a distinction between himself and his surroundings, i.e., his sense of ego-separation has vanished.


#8. The Ox and the Man both Gone out of Sight.

This, too, is a statement of attaining Union. "... there exists no form of dualism."


#9. Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source.

This is redundant, the state indicated being completely covered in the 8th picture.


#10.Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands.

This picture is the worst offender of the series. It is invariably misread. As we’ve previously noted, despite the fact that the Oxherder, himself, is one of the two figures (the smaller one), most commentaries assume that the fat, disheveled man is the subject of the illustration. He clearly is not. He is one of the drunks that the Oxherder, in his Bodhisattva role, is preaching to and converting. Needless to say, this mis-identification is the cause of considerable modern mischief. Many commentaries which eliminate the Oxherder from the picture identify the slovenly but happy drunk as the fully-enlightened "Bodhisattva." The entire work of spiritual discipline is thus reduced to justifying a return to human society as a wine-drinker and carouser. When the work began, the Oxherder was thin, neat, thoughtful and sober. When the work ended, he was fat, slovenly, insouciant and drunk. The message simply conveys the antinomian idea that the liberated person is at liberty to be a libertine, which, of course, is patently absurd. A man does not become a true Zen master and then become a drunk. It can be, and often is, the other way around.

According, then, to most interpretations of Guo-an Shih Yuan’s series, the Oxherder has gone from converting drunks to becoming one. This will not do. Zen is still part of Buddhism and, as such, keeps in force a prohibition against intoxication.

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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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