The 10 Zen Oxherding Pictures


The 10 Zen Oxherding Pictures

Verse by 廓庵師遠 Kuoan Shiyuan [Kakuan Shien], 12th century.

Translated by Philip Kapleau (1912-2004).

Paintings by 直原玉青 Jikihara Gyokusei (1904-2005).

Gifted to Zen Mountain Monastery.

Among the various formulations of the levels of realization in Zen, none is more widely known than the Oxherding Pictures, a sequence of ten illustrations annotated with comments in prose and verse. It is probably because of the sacred nature of the ox in ancient India that this animal came to be used to symbolize man’s primal nature or Buddha-mind. 

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, but he was not the first to illustrate the developing stages of Zen realization through pictures. Earlier versions of five and eight pictures exist in which the ox becomes progressively whiter, the last painting being a circle. This implied, that the realization of Oneness (i.e., the effacement of every conception of self and other) was the ultimate goal of Zen. But Kakuan, feeling this to be incomplete, added two more pictures beyond the circle to make it clear that the Zen man of the highest spiritual development lives in the mundane world of form and diversity and mingles with the utmost freedom among ordinary men, whom he inspires with his compassion and radiance to walk in the Way of the Buddha. It is this version that has gained the widest acceptance in Japan, has proved itself over the years to be a source of instruction and unfailing inspiration to Zen students:


The man actively seeks the ox in the forest.

The Ox has never really gone astray, so why search for it? Having turned his back on his True-nature, the man cannot see it. Because of his defilements he has lost sight of the Ox. Suddenly he finds himself confronted by a maze of crisscrossing roads. Greed for worldly gain and dread of loss spring up like searing flames, ideas of right and wrong dart out like daggers.

Desolate 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.


The man discovers its tracks.

Through the sutras and teachings he discerns the tracks of the Ox. [He has been informed that just as] different-shaped [golden] vessels are all basically of the same gold, so each and every thing is a manifestation of the Self. But he is unable to distinguish good from evil, truth and falsity. He has not actually entered the gate, but he sees in a tentative way the tracks of the Ox.

Innumerable footprints has he seen
in the forest and along the water’s edge.
Over yonder does he see the trampled grass?
Even the deepest gorges of the topmost mountains
can’t hide this Ox’s nose which reaches right to heaven.


The man spies the ox in the distance.

If he will but listen intently to everyday sounds, he will come to realization and at that instant see the very Source. These six senses are no different from this true Source. In every activity the Source is manifestly present. It is analogous to the salt in water or the binder in paint. When the inner vision is properly focused, once comes to realize that that which is seen is identical with the true Source.

A nightingale warbles on a twig,
the sun shines on undulating willows.
There stands the Ox, where could it hide?
That splendid head, those stately horns,
what artist could portray them?


The man catches the ox.

Today he encountered the Ox, which had long been cavorting in the wild fields, and actually grasped it. For so long a time has it reveled in these surroundings that breaking it of its old habits is not easy. It continues to yearn for sweet-scented grasses, it is still stubborn and unbridled. If he would tame it completely, the man must use his whip.

He must tightly grasp the rope and not let it go,
for the Ox still has unhealthy tendencies.
Now it charges up to the highlands,
now it loiters in a misty ravine.


The man tames the ox.

With the rising of one thought another and another are born. Enlightenment brings the realization that such thoughts are not unreal since even they arise from our True-nature. It is only because delusion still remains that they are imagined to be unreal. This state of delusion does not originate in the objective world but in our own minds.

He must hold the nose-rope tight and not allow the Ox to roam,
lest off to muddy haunts it should stray.
Properly tended, it becomes clean and gentle.
Untethered, it willingly follows its master.


The man rides the ox home.

The struggle is over, “gain” and “loss” no longer affect him. He hums the rustic tune of the woodsman and plays the simple songs of the village children. Astride the Ox’s back, he gazes serenely at the clouds above. His head does not turn [in the direction of temptations]. Try though one may to upset him, he remains undisturbed.

Riding free as air he buoyantly comes home
through evening mists in wide straw-hat and cape.
Wherever he may go he creates a fresh breeze,
while in his heart profound tranquility prevails.
This Ox requires not a blade of grass.


Once home, the man forgets the ox and is left with himself alone.

In the Dharma there is no two-ness. The Ox is his Primal-nature: this he has now recognized. A trap is no longer needed when a rabbit has been caught; a net becomes useless when a fish has been snared. Like gold which has been separated from dross, like the moon which has broken through the clouds, one ray of luminous Light shines eternally.

Only on the Ox was he able to come Home,
But lo, the Ox is now vanished, and alone and serene
sits the man.
The red sun rides high in the sky
as he dreams on placidly.
Yonder beneath the thatched roof
his idle whip and idle rope are lying.


The man forgets the self as well.

All delusive feelings have perished and ideas of holiness too have vanished. He lingers not in [the state of “I am a] Buddha,” and he passes quickly on through [the stage of “And now I have purged myself of the proud feeling ‘I am] not Buddha.'” Even the thousand eyes [of five hundred Buddhas and Dharma masters] can discern in him no specific quality. If hundreds of birds were now to strew flowers about his room, he could not but feel ashamed of himself.

Whip, rope, Ox and man alike belong to Emptiness.
So vast and infinite the azure sky
that no concept of any sort can reach it,
Over a blazing fire a snowflake cannot survive.
When this state of mind is realized
comes at last comprehension
of the spirit of the ancient Patriarchs.


The man is returned to the source of his being.

From the very beginning there has not been so much as a speck of dust [to mar the intrinsic Purity]. He observes the waxing and waning of life in the world while abiding unassertively in a state of unshakable serenity. This [waxing and waning] is no phantom or illusion [but a manifestation of the Source]. Why then is there need to strive for anything? The waters are blue, the mountains are green. Alone with himself, he observes things endlessly changing.

He has returned to the Origin, come back to the Source,
but his steps have been taken in vain.
It is as though he were now blind and deaf.
Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red.


The man enters the marketplace to serve with helping hands.

The gate of his cottage is closed and even the wisest cannot find him. His mental panorama has finally disappeared. He goes his own way, making no attempt to follow the steps of earlier sages. Carrying a gourd, he strolls into the market; leaning on his staff, he returns home. He leads innkeepers and fishmongers in the Way of the Buddha.

Barechested, barefooted, he comes into the marketplace.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.

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