Ten Ox-Herding Pictures __ Chun Ok-bae

Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
Seeking Traces of the Original Buddha-Mind
Chun Ok-bae | Former Director, Korea Institute of Buddhist English Translation
The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures allegorically describe the path to enlightenment and self-development in the Seon tradition, the type of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation practice as the primary path to uncovering one’s innate wisdom and compassion and then awakening one’s true mind, or “buddha-nature.”
This series of simple drawings, accompanied by brief poems, are thought to have first been drawn by 12th century Chinese Seon Master Kuoan. In Korea they are very often found painted on the outer walls of a temple’s Main Hall. This has become a very common motif at Korean temples due to their wide popularity in explaining the pathway of Seon practice for training the mind in attractive and easy-to-understand allegorical images. The Korean versions have become much more elaborate than the original simple Chinese drawings, growing into colorful paintings with beautiful mountain landscape backgrounds and evocatively depicted figures.
ⓒ Jang Myeong-hwoak
▲ “Riding the ox back home,” the sixth of the Ten Ox-Herding paintings
They depict a young male ox-herder searching for his lost ox, taming it and then moving on. The sequence parallels the journey of a novice Buddhist practitioner who comes to realize his or her own mind through Seon meditation. The boy represents the practitioner, while the ox represents the original Buddha-mind that the practitioner seeks.
1. Searching for the ox
In this first picture, the young ox-herder is in the forest looking a little lost, aimlessly searching. We are all like this ox-herder in this world, anxiously looking for inner peace without knowing where to begin looking for it. Symbolically, the ox-herder is meditating for the first time searching for his Buddhahood, not realizing that it is already within him.
2. Seeing the tracks
The boy, searching for the ox, finds its hoof prints. Here the practitioner is catching an initial glimpse of his original mind or innate Buddhahood.
3. Seeing the ox
As the boy follows the tracks of the ox, he finally sees the ox half-hidden among the trees. This shows that if the practitioner studies and practices hard, he will begin to find his true mind. Regularly visiting or staying in temples, practicing meditation, talking with enlightened teachers and reading helpful scriptures, we start to make a little progress.
4. Catching the ox
The boy is trying hard to catch the wild ox with a rope, but the ox does not want to be tamed. The boy has to hang on tightly as the ox jumps fiercely and drags him around. Similarly, even though the practitioner has now glimpsed his true nature, he has not yet cleansed the delusions from his mind, which does not want to stay focused. It is a tough struggle to pacify all his wild thoughts that keep distracting him from true meditation.
5. Tending the ox
The boy is gently tending the ox, which has calmed down and is not acting wild anymore. However, the boy is still holding on to the rope loosely because he knows that although the main fight is over, he must remain vigilant. Even if one seems to have achieved some great progress in calming his mind early on, he must continue to practice hard.
6. Riding the ox back home
The ox-herder is sitting leisurely on the ox playing the flute. Riding the now-tamed ox, the boy happily heads back home. Once the practitioner succeeds in controlling the distractions of his mind, he will now begin to make real progress towards returning to his true, original mind. The practice of meditation is no longer a struggle at this stage, but becomes pleasurable.
7. The ox forgotten, the ox-herder rests alone
The ox has disappeared from the painting and the ox-herder is resting at home, forgetting about the ox. He is at peace with his mind, body and heart. At this stage the practitioner has achieved real progress in calmly-focused meditation and can forget all about “searching for his mind,” even as he continues diligently practicing.
8. Both the ox and ox-herder are forgotten
Now, the ox-herder and the ox are both gone. There is only an empty circle, representing the “emptiness” attained by forgetting both ox and self. The realization suddenly and intuitively comes that we all are interdependent and deeply connected to the world, and that everything arises from emptiness. Emptiness is not a vacuum, a black hole, but the possibility of endless transformation. We realize that we are a manifestation of conditions and experiences, and that we do not have a solid, separate identity. Through complete emptiness the boy attains a state of enlightenment, which cannot really be depicted in words or in an image. Therefore, this simple circle of “wholeness” is the symbol used.
9. Returning to our original place
Now there is no ox and no boy, only the beautiful scene of the original, clear mind, the world as it truly is without any subject-object distinctions in our perceptions. Our life is ordinary just as it was before, but we look at it differently. With this mind it’s possible to see things as they really are: “Mountains are mountains, and water is water,” a great master once said. We realize that everything is already expressing the truth of life and awareness to us.
10. Entering the marketplace with helping hands
The ox-herder, after years of practice, returns from the mountain to the village. We find spirituality everywhere; it is not confined to monasteries and secluded places. This last stage represents the attained combination of freedom, wisdom and compassion, the core idea of Buddhism. The ox-herder returns to civilization to teach what he has learned to all sentient beings and to help free them from their suffering, the practice of a bodhisattva.
These simple yet noble pictures show us the stages of how Seon practice deepens our realization as we continue on the path, discovering the simultaneous emptiness and interdependence of all things. This is how we can learn to see reality as it truly is, apart from our desires, delusions and judgments: inexorably interlinked. The famous 13th century Japanese Seon Master Dogen expressed this succinctly:
        The way of Buddha is to know yourself.
        To know yourself is to forget yourself.
        To forget yourself is to be enlightened by all things.

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