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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 6: Cattle Gender

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
For Ben G.

After all that heavy stuff of Part 5, we could use a break and lighten things up a little... well... lighten may not be the best word...

Let’s return to the Oxherding pictures and digress a bit to consider one peculiar element which all the illustrations have in common: The animal shows absolutely no indication of sex. There is not an udder, testicle or penis anywhere in sight.

No doubt this will ultimately prove to be utterly irrelevant, but, allowing that it is a bit odd, we ought at least to wonder about it. Why is the creature’s gender not specified? Is the omission intended to indicate that the animal’s gender is unimportant to the interpretation, or is it intended to signify a sexless creature or, conversely, one that represents both? Or is it simply that the artists, in consideration of the pictures’ religious nature, have modestly declined to illustrate sexual organs? Hmmm. And how do these possibilities jibe with the commentaries?

So, despite the matter’s being of nominal or perhaps only prurient interest, let’s begin our discussion with a review of bovine gender terminology.

The individual members of the family Bovidae, genus Bos, species taurus are, my limitations in taxonomy aside, generally referred to as follows:

  • A female newborn is called a heifer until she breeds at which time she becomes a cow.

  • A male newborn is called a calf. When he grows to maturity, he becomes a bull.

As to domesticated animals, if the calf is considered a food animal and is destined to become beef, he is castrated before he reaches maturity and is called a steer. If he is destined to become a draught animal, he may be castrated before or after he reaches maturity and in either case is called an ox. He tends to grow bigger, however, if he is castrated while still immature. (Recall the old euphemism for having a housecat castrated: "having him enlarged.")

Metacarpal bones of a cow, a bull, and an ox which indicate that while the cow and bull are similar in size, the ox is noticeably larger.

As we would say "cattle" as an inclusive term, the Chinese use a single character to convey the meaning, "domesticated bovines" for all the sexual variants. If they need to be more specific they just add the necessary detail. In giving a title to the subject series of illustrations they elected to use the general term. Technically the title should be "the Cattle Herder;" but since there’s only one animal in the pictures, we need a singular specific. As we would say "cow country", a more appropriate English translation would seem to be the Cowboy Series - but while this title well may describe a few Zen enthusiasts we all know and love, it just doesn’t sound too Zen.

Can the animal in the pictures be an ox? It looks very frisky for an ox, so much so that the estimable Paul Reps calls the pictures "The Bulls". Yet the animal is shown with a ring in its nose and a tether attached to the ring and, also, with the man riding the animal. If there’s a hint to be gleaned from that ring and rope then surely we are dealing here with a domestic beast of burden, i.e., an ox. But, Whoa! An ox is a castrated animal!

In all the Oxherding versions, the animal is being forced to submit; but why is such a struggle worthy of notice? Would we immortalize in art the struggle between a gaucho and a cow that already had a ring in her nose; or would we hail as a conquering hero a cowboy who had subdued an emasculated ox that was similarly nose-ringed? True, cows and oxen can give a fellow a hard time occasionally; but the disciplinary measures he takes can hardly serve as an exemplar for any great spiritual combat. (We should note, however, that subjugating a wild, powerful, large, and obviously virile animal is precisely what the slightly-built and unarmed matador does during the ten minute course of his faena.)

Well, we muse, does some sort of stigma attach to its having been castrated? Further, since there’s no indication of a penis either, are we justified in wondering if the animal is being denigrated in some sexist way by showing it to be devoid of any masculine characteristics?

Let’s consider how the practice of castration might have been regarded during the times that the pictures originated.

In China and, indeed, in all the world’s civilized countries, castration was regarded as a far more efficient way to promote proper conduct than persuasion, training, or any of the more creative forms of rehabilitation. Not only was castration the Prozac of the ancient world, it was prescribed as punishment for crime and as a means for earning profit. Whether legal or illegal, there was always a market for castrated slaves, and kidnappers routinely exploited this flesh trade.

Force, however, was not always necessary. Eunuchs were very desirable employees, and many men voluntarily submitted to the procedure. Rich potentates and businessmen had many wives and concubines and only eunuchs could safely be permitted to enter their domiciles. Moreover, since eunuchs had no dreams of founding dynasties or financial empires which they might bequeath to an heir, they lacked any nasty competitive ambition to perpetuate name or power. However vain or greedy a eunuch might become, neither his desires nor their fulfillment could reasonably extend beyond his lifetime. If this were not incentive enough - and it certainly should have been - to engage them, eunuchs were hired because they made such fine employees and administrators; they could concentrate fiercely on their work, being given so rarely to common distractions.

We know that in Rome or Mesopotamia, castration for treatment, punishment, or profit was routinely practiced. But the Chinese not only subscribed to this practice, they took it into other dimensions, "hypercastration," if you will. In fact, rarely did they limit themselves to the bounds of ordinary lopping. As our sexless Oxherder bovine might illustrate, they removed the penis as well. Consider an actual Chinese record which Dr. Guido Majno has quoted in The Healing Hand (Harvard Press, l975): (the squeamish can pass over this.)

"When about to be operated on, the patient is placed in a semi-supine position on a broad bench. One man squatting behind him grasps his waist, and another is told to look after each leg. Bandages are fastened tightly round the hypogastric and inguinal regions, the penis and the scrotum are three times bathed in a hot decoction of pepper pods, and the patient, if an adult, is solemnly asked, whether he repents or will ever repent his decision. If he appears doubtful he is unbound and dismissed, but if his courage has held out, as it usually does, all the parts are swiftly swept away by one stroke of a sickle-shaped knife, a pewter plug is inserted into the urethra, and the wound is covered..."

We are left wondering on what occasions non-adults were castrated and what the outcome was if such patients objected. (It is of some interest to note that the great vocal range and quality of the Italian opera’s Castrati or Evirato was in fact facilitated by their having been emasculated as choir boys to insure greater lung capacity and bulky stature. The practice of emasculating young singers continued into the modern era but ended, alas, before the advent of Rap. This, however, is another subject...)

Of course, if the animal in the Oxherding pictures is intended to be merely an animal, we cannot account for the absence of a penis - the Chinese did not insert pewter plugs in bovine urethras.

We can say, however, there could be no coy reluctance to reproduce genitalia for religious art: As it happens, the planet/god Saturn, which will prove relevant to our discussion, was theriomorphically represented as a bull. As the picture here displayed indicates, the Chinese were entirely at ease with the artistic presentation of sacred bovine testicles.

The Planet Saturn, from The Five Planets and Twenty-eight Constellations. Early sixth century.

Before trying to place any instructional value on the Oxherding pictures, we really ought to resolve the question of the animal’s gender and nature. And while we’re at it we might have a look at the Corrida’s sexuality as well.

That male animals are used in the Corrida is a matter of common sense husbandry. Ranchers send bulls to the Corrida, having intuited that if they send cows, they soon will have no animals to send. The tora brava cow, however, is equally worthy of combat. The great Spanish matador, Antonio Bienvenidas, who killed hundreds of bulls during his long and distinguished career, was killed in the ring by a vaca, and a young one at that.

Bullfighters or toreros also are usually men but they need not be. In the past, many women, including several Americans, distinguished themselves in the arena; and today we have in the person of Christina Sanchez a particularly beautiful and competent bullfighter.

In Blonde and Sand, his GQ article about Christina Sanchez, author Tony Hendra considers various theories offered to account for the Corrida’s palatable sexuality. He is not convinced by such standard explanations as "The bull represents the savagery of nature; the bullfighter symbolizes the victory of the human race." Neither does he find particularly satisfying Joseph Campbell’s mythological interpretation "that the bullfight is a reenactment of the primordial rituals in which shamans of the sun symbolically overthrew the night: ‘The brave moon-bull with its crescent horns slain by the solar blade of the sparkling matador.’" Hendra sizes up the raw passion displayed so unrestrainedly in the stands and wonders, "But why does the late-twentieth-century public still bring such naked passion to the plaza? Defeating the savagery of nature for the umpteenth time doesn’t seem like a priority when you have an Audi triple-parked outside. In the Age of Halogen, shamans of the sun draw a lot of unemployment."

Hendra clearly doesn’t spend a lot of time in New Age hangouts. In such circles shamans have agents and enjoy a seller’s market for their talents.

His reference to the exact point at which the sword must penetrate the bull is noteworthy. "The sword is supposed to enter the bull at only one spot - a small circle an inch or two in diameter between its shoulder blades. If the kill is perfect the sword will penetrate up to the hilt. The symbolism here is obvious."

Obvious, it may be, but bullfighting antedates metallurgy. Trying to stab a charging bull between the shoulder blades with a wooden spear cannot have been the favored strategy of prehistoric beef eaters. The modern matador attempts to kill the bull instantaneously by severing its aorta; and this small target area is the only place he can accomplish this ‘surgical strike’.


This Lascaux cave painting demonstrates an advantage gained by bringing the animal to a standstill: it can be speared from the rear. The rectal shot makes sense considering that the weapon used was wooden and, at least in this picture, does not seem to be stone-tipped. A toro bravo cannot be attacked like an elephant. Not only is it aggressive, ferocious, and fully armed, but at short distances, it is faster than a horse and can turn on a dime.

More provocative, because it is reminiscent of the ox’s switch in color from black to white, is the Sorbonne’s Julian Pitt-Rivers’ opinion that the sexes reverse during the contest. At first, the matador is the coquette who uses his cape like a swirling skirt as he teases the rampaging macho bull. Then the matador replaces the feminine cape with the flag-like muleta and as the sexual roles reverse, proceeds to dominate the now allegedly subdued and passive bullette until, with one mighty thrust, he proceeds to penetrate the compliant quarry.

It is true that during the last period of the faena the matador strikes an extremely suggestive masculine posture. He walks with a peculiar, taunting gait, a strange strut in which he swaggers with his pelvis thrust forward and his back arched as though his body were a procession of parts and his genitals the drum major. He seems to be offering them as a bull’s-eye target for the horns to prong. But women toreros assume this identical stance. There is nothing simple about a bullfight.

Hendra also dispenses with "crypto-Freudian theories: that the bull represents the id, whose dark chthonic forces must be tamed and overthrown by the superego (the matador); or that the bull represents patriarchal authority, the father who must be killed and replaced by the son. These notions embrace the obvious fact that the bull is masculine; but a more tendentious school claims that the role of the bull is actually feminine."

We’re getting closer, here. Clearly, in the Corrida as in the original Oxherding pictures, the nature of the animal is Yin, Eros, power, and darkness - none of which is bad or wrong but all of which must be neutralized by being united with its opposite: Yang, Logos, law, and light. When the bull is brought to a standstill, a solstice, at this "Moment of Truth", he is penetrated - sacrificed in the Act of Union, the Mysterium Coniunctionis. This is the spiritual core of the ritual.

In the Oxherding pictures, too, the "ox" which begins as all black gradually whitens, negredo to albedo, before the "bride" makes her appearance in the 8th picture (in which the constellation Lyra, containing Vega, the Spinning Maiden, appears.) In picture 9, the Oxherder appears with another constellation, variously identified as the Northern Ladle or the Ox, the shift in constellations further paralleling the Corrida’s marking of those seasonal changes, solstice and equinox, which traditionally herald a Corrida.

Again, the actual gender of the participants is not significant. It is neither a contest between male and female nor between human and savage. Human and divine, maybe; earth and sky probably; but very definitely dark and light - the precise meaning of Yin and Yang.

Sexuality is a derivative of Shakti/Shiva, not its integral. We are dealing here with basics: Power and the Law power obeys; the Union of Opposites, a transcendental conjugation. Clearly, the animal in the pictures doesn’t display sexual characteristics because gender is irrelevant. And whether in the Temple or the Plaza, Divine Marriage, the faena of harmonizing the diverse, of seizing and being seized in the rapturous moment, is the great achievement. The act is salvific. Meditator or matador, the bull slayer is heroic. The bull’s body is, after all, a gift from God. It is both the flesh and the spirit of food.

In our next chapter we’ll consider Trinities and triple gods and goddesses.

Exercise: The pulse beat meditation. In this exercise we focus our attention on the pulse-beat felt in each finger. (To get the feel of this, gently hold the thumb and index finger together.) With relaxed hand, focus the concentration on the index finger, count 10 pulsebeats, and move the focus of concentration to the next finger. Complete all the fingers of both hands. Concentration on the hand will direct blood to it and this will result in a rise in temperature. When this exercise is mastered, it should be expanded to include feeling a pulse beat in the lips, eyelids, feet, legs, and especially the Hara (the point deep in the abdomen where the aorta bifurcates to become the femoral arteries.) The Healing breath described in The Seventh World of Chan (Chapter 10: First Zen Practice) and the eye-rotations should also be practiced.


Ming Zhen "La Sacerdotisa" Shakya, the Heifer-caper. This animal is a genuine tora brava. Several of the heifers caped this day knocked down experienced adult human males. (Despite her bad form, she was not knocked down.)

Ming Zhen Shakya with her teacher, Matador Silvano "El Gallito" Gonzalez, at the Arte Taurino Workshop, Mexico City.

Susie Flores beginning a rebolera.  Susie for Flamenco and Bullfighting lessons in Mexico: Arte Taurino Workshop: toro@connecti.com

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Part 13
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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