“The Ox-Herding Pictures are none other than our genjo koan, the koan of everyday life.”
The essence of Zen is simplicity. It eschews lengthy explanations, doctrinal debates or even the idea of a good person. Its mission, if there be one, is that of liberation: the full, untrammeled liberation of the human being to his or her highest potential. Its realization is something so ordinary it might easily be missed. It doesn’t come with bells and whistles. It has no PR department. And yet, when one doesn’t know it, “the hills of home recede farther and farther away… and no place allows you refuge.”
The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, dating back to 12th century China, when they were first composed by Kak’uan, are a prized teaching tool in the Zen canon, used to illustrate the stages of self-realization. The ten stages can be encapsulated as follows: a seeker sets out to find out who he is, discovers a spiritual path, works with it and eventually realizes his or her true nature. The nice thing about the ox herder is that he is not a holy person, not a monk or even a religious person. He is Everyman, looking for his birthright, his true nature from which he’s become estranged. The ox represents true nature and the stages depict the seeker’s progressive relationship to his true nature, ending with his return to everyday life looking no different than anyone else, except something has lit up within - the ox herder now knows who he is.
Nothing in life happens, of course, in a strict linear line so some individuals may have an opening experience early on in their lives and have to work backwards through the stages to integrate it into their lives. Or conceivably spend aeons at one particular stage, or even cycle through all of them in the space of a few moments. As with any koan, however, the more one keeps coming back to it, the more one’s understanding and appreciation of its teaching is refined. In that sense, the Ox-Herding Pictures are none other than our genjo koan, the koan of everyday life.
Those of us lured into thinking of an enlightenment experience as the ultimate credential for our spiritual resume might be discomfited by the eighth stage where everything disappears, including any “me” to be enlightened.
The quintessential practice in Zen is meditation, used not in the service of a beleaguered ego, but rather as an act of deconstruction of the self one thinks one is. The seeker can become confused about what matters, especially as there are many side attractions. So having a schema that depicts it visually is helpful, bearing in mind that one’s own journey is not identical to anyone else’s. For some of us, the most helpful aspect of the Ten Pictures may be the depiction of the actual struggle involved in taming the ox, the idea that an effort of a certain kind is required in order to allow that which has been overlooked to become perceptible.
Ultimately, the Ox-Herder’s path is no different from that of the mythological hero who sets out on a journey to find the hidden treasure and who passes through all these trials only to discover that in the end, he possessed everything he needed and the treasure actually resided in his own backyard. And still the journey needs to be taken.