My Journey Through the Ox Herding Pictures: Looking for the Ox, Picture 1

wisdom lover ox herding picture 1 looking for the ox search for enlightenment

Recently, my guru Pierre Grimes, has been encouraging the Noetic Society to revisit and update the famous Ten Ox-Herding Bull pictures and commentaries. The ten ox-herding pictures illustrate the stages of practice leading to the enlightenment at which Zen (Chan) Buddhism aims and highlights the dramatic journey that we all travel in the quest for enlightenment in which the true Self is revealed. My guru’s encouragement spurred me to examine my path once again in relation to the pictures: so my story begins with the first picture.

In order to tell the story we will first revisit the picture and accompanying verse to identify what it represents. Then I will relate it to my own path of Enlightenment. In this series I will be using, the commentary translation of Phillip Kapleau (Three Pillars of Zen) and, the best known version of the ox-herding pictures by Kuòān Shīyuǎn:

The original drawings and the commentary that accompanies them are both attributed to Kakuan Shien (Kuo-an Shih-yuan); a Chinese Zen master of the twelfth century (Three Pillars of Zen, Kapleau, p.301)

Philip Kapleau underwent thirteen years of rigorous Zen training under three Japanese Zen masters and was given Dharma Transmission by Hakuun Yasutani-roshi in 1965. The Three Pillars of Zen, was published in 1965 and quickly became the benchmark for an introduction to Zen practice. He passed on May 6, 2004 from Parkinson’s disease, in the sunlit garden of his Rochester, New York, Zen Center, surrounded by his students, family, and friends. For more information visit the Rochester Zen Center.  

Now, to begin, let us recall that the ox symbolizes the Ultimate and Undivided Nature of Reality, the Buddha-nature as it is called in Buddhism, or The ONE or The GOOD in Platonic thought, which is the ground beyond the ground of all Existence/Being, i.e. ineffable. The Ox-herder symbolizes the Self, which initially, starting out in ignorance, identifies with the individuated ego, separate from the Nature of Reality.

Looking for the OXDesolate through forests and fearful in jungles,

He is seeking an Ox which he does not find.

Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,

In deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.

Bone-tired, heart-weary, he carries on his search

for this something which he yet cannot find.

At evening he hears cicadas chirping in the trees. (TPZ,p.302)


It is a curious question, whether we begin this stage when we are born, or when we first realize our suffering and unhappiness with the world. For the moment I will say this, in Philosophical Midwifery we see that the child at some stage is in a clear, pure, free, open state which is stopped, shut down, and the child is conned out of it.  At that very moment, as a result, the child picks up a false belief about the nature of the Self, dropping this pure state of mind for:

Might not the child conclude that it is better to lower on’s expectations rather than waste one’s efforts to seeking an unobtainable ideal.? Thus, practical goals are substituted for the ideal, and compromise soon becomes a solution to everything: and in the process a noble being is transformed into a shadow of himself.  The self is chained down with compromise and its own past experience with freedom becomes only a faint memory. (Philosophical Midwifery, p.28)

For me this occurred at about 5 years of age, and hence the search for the Ox began. Where does a 5 year old begin?

Keep in the mind, the Ox, at this point, is an Ox we know not. We are in ignorance as we wander through “desolate forests …and nameless rivers.” The Ox is anything that will take away that dissatisfaction with life and remove the “fear of the jungle.” Whatever will make things unified and even better: One!

All options are attempted if it has the possibility of making the situation right. Whatever will bring you back to that pure state of freedom and reflection that was stolen away. We are forced into our search because we cannot ignore that the ego (individual self) attempts to shape a life of Oneness is unsatisfactory and has failed.

In this first picture we can identify that which within ourselves is desperately looking everywhere, for the lost Ox in life, due to dissatisfaction with life, and inability to find the true happiness that we seek. As it has been said:

Man is a curious creature. There appears to be nothing he will not try if it offers the slightest chance of overcoming his sense of alienation. He will go to war, use drugs, get married, and even play golf. Even if it has only the slimmest chance of ending his sense of futility, he will gamble on it. (An Introduction to Platonic Philosophy, Grimes) 

Like many of us, he is searching for something. He thinks he knows for what: The Ox. However, he has no idea of what the Ox fundamentally is, or of that which searches for it, namely The True Self (not the individuated ego/self). Although we are not sure exactly what it is that will make life meaningful and bring lasting happiness; we search diligently none the less. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, at 5 years old, I was not asking, “What is The One? or What is Buddha-Nature?” But there is a clear intuition that something was missing and so you begin to search. You do not really know for what you search: it has the feeling of “I will know when I find it!” But even that is wishful, for in that we are “in deep mountain thickets” and “tread many bypaths” and are completely lost in the world of sense. We want there to be an Ox, but we cannot yet make the distinction clear enough to be sure.

So there I am, a 5 year old, in the desolate forest and the fearful jungle of the world, pushing aside everything just to find that One again. Fully lost, with no direction, stumbling through a maze of sense impressions, not even knowing what I was looking for. 

Over the next 11 years, until the age of 16, I grew warier and warier. The effects of being shipped around after the divorce of my mother and father, of bouncing from school to school , having no real friends, and feeling isolated in society as early as 3rd grade, did not bring fulfillment obviously. It only got worse when I was told yet again at 12 years old, that I was moving AGAIN! This time to California, with an addition: a new step dad who I DIDN’T GET ALONG WITH!

The first four years in Huntington Beach were miserable. I was treated like even more of an alien, having moved from Oklahoma, than I had ever before. I grew more and more uncomfortable, every day as I became a teenager. The feeling of looking for the Ox grew stronger and stronger. However, I was “bone-tired, heart-weary” and my vitality depleted: I cannot find the bull!  I had all but given up. Ready to die in the jungle, next to the no-name river, lost with no reference point, slipping into depression and despair: distraught with the ridiculous world we live in.

Suddenly, One day, when I was 16, hanging out at the no-name mall, someone said, “Do you want one?” 

“Sure I said,” wanting to be part of a group and trying to fit in as usual to make friends. “What is it?” I asked.

It is paper with wisdom he described. “It will show you what you want to know,” he whispered.

I was ALL IN! I knew I was looking for something, but not what and he offers a possibility: Absolutely! This little piece of paper inscribed with ancient wisdom was supposed to do something to me or change me in some way. In what way I had no idea.

But just like the ox-herder in search of his Ox, I was in search of my Ox. Although, as stated before, in the beginning, we are looking for an Ox while not even knowing what the Ox Is or if it Truly Exists: you just know that you are looking for something. You have no knowledge of the Ox when you are beginning, without even realizing you are beginning. This is because, you are in the desolate forest of sense experience, aimlessly wandering no-name rivers, pushing your way through. You are lost! You feel it, but you don’t know it, because in the ignorance of the Indiscriminate Many, i.e. the nameless rivers and the desolate forest, there can be no right opinion, or right belief.

Even at that point when you imbibe the ancient knowledge, when you take in what is being offered, you still don’t know or have no idea of what to expect. Maybe you will find the Ox. Maybe you will not. Who cares at this point? You are about to die in the desolate forest along a no-name river, listening to far off distant crickets chirping.  

And so I imbibed the purported wisdom: continuing the journey, ready and waiting: there I was sitting in a chair of a house I did not know, looking at a painting of Lion that I did not know, AND IT BEGAN.

The Lion came alive and spoke to me during the first hours as I watched him leave his statuesque Form in the painting and transform into the Idea. He walked directly up to me, and I was scared because I don’t deal with Lions normally, and said, “ALL IS ONE, ONE IS BEING.”

Now, of course, many hours later I was left reflecting on what had happened and I came to a conclusion. A profound conclusion at that time: I had found the trail of the Ox! Let’s follow the tracks and never look back. Hallelujah!!!

To Be Continued in Part 2 soon with the 2nd Ox herding picture.


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