The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures

With the Verses Composed by KAKUAN Zenji
Teisho by KUBOTA Ji'un

Additional observations and remarks by Zen Devil.


The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, painted by Tatsuhiko YOKOO

The "Ten Ox-herding Pictures" are one example of "Ox-herding Pictures." Here, our essential self is compared to an ox. We seek the ox, grasp it, tame it and finally the self which has always been seeking becomes completely one with the ox. But this also is forgotten so that we now simply carry on our ordinary lives. This is the process described by the Pictures. They show concretely the progression of our practice and are very helpful for a self-examination of our own practice and as encouragement for further practice. I hope then that studying the Ten Ox-herding Pictures will provide an opportunity for all of us to continually examine our practice and also give an indication for self-reflection as to what stage we have now arrived.

What a great idea, if we only existed and our
essential self would be something more than just
a mere delusion.

All that is known about the author of the verses to the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, Master KAKUAN Shion, is that he was a disciple of DAIZUI Genjô [1065-1135], the twelfth in the line of Master Rinzai. His dates of birth and death as well as other information are unclear. To each of the ten pictures of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures Master Kakuan has first put a verse and at the end his disciple, Jion (some say Kakuan himself, others say the friend of Kakuan) is said to have put a general introduction and a brief introduction to each one of the verses.

Missing the dates might not be that bad, as time 
is also nothing more than a mere delusion attaching 
us to other delusions. Let the time go and embrace
the eternity.

In the Ten Ox-herding Pictures a little child and an ox are depicted. The ox is the essential self which we are seeking. The little child represents the self of the phenomenal world which wants very much to grasp the essential self - not through concepts and thoughts, but as it really is. This little child (the self of the phenomenal world) is, in fact, always seeking something. It wants money, status, and fame. But life is more than just money, more than just status, and more than just fame. So, the self goes on seeking, now through this philosophy, now through that religion, and endeavors to grow and to make as much progress as possible. There are some who are defeated by the struggle, become neurotic, and even go so far as suicide. For them the spirit of seeking something has operated only as a minus factor; the fact that they are still expending energy and continuing to seek something has not changed.

This would be very true, if true only existed: life is
more than money, more than status, and more than 
fame. But don´t forget to add to the list also 
merit, alms, visiting temples, pilgrimages, and

But why is it that men and women always seek something in this way? According to the teaching of Zen, men and women are essentially perfect and complete, in reality limitless and absolute (this is called "buddha" [hotoke] or "essential buddha-being" [honrai-jôbutsu]). Nevertheless, though being such, they appear phenomenally as imperfect, limited, relative, passing sinful beings (sometimes this is called "ordinary people" [bompu], and sometimes "living beings" [shujô]). Besides, although human being are born this way, they cannot know the essence (Buddha nature) of their own perfection and limitless absoluteness.

Self makes us blind and it is planted to us by society.
That is natural, because selfless people do not adapt to any society any 
longer. Only self requires a 
society to fulfill its longing for security against 
the fear of death.

The Ten Ox-herding Pictures have concretely depicted the process in which the imperfect, limited, and relative self (the little child) awakens to the perfect, unlimited, and absolute essential self (the ox), grasps it, tames it, forgets it, and completely incorporates it into the personality. But we must stress that these pictures and verses are merely an indication of the way to practice and not an object for conceptual thought. Thus, the study of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures are very useful for those who are actually striving to make clear the true self in Zen through the actual sitting with aching legs. But for those who want only to learn the rationale of Zen I must warn that these pictures and words will be only "white elephants" of no use whatsoever.

Little child is already englightened as 
the deception of the self has not yet awaken.

While practise can be used for beating the self,
it is not the only way. There are as many ways as 
there are englihtened ones.

The rationale of Zen: 
rationales can exist in delusions only.

I will omit an explanation of the general introduction and proceed to explain the spirit of the particular introduction for each stage. After that I would like to appreciate each line of the verses composed by Master Kakuan himself.

Originally printed in Kyôshô #245 [1994]-#259 [1996]; the present version is a revised edition. The words in [ ] are the translator's notes.


The first of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures is "Seeking the Ox." It is the stage when the desire has arisen to seek the essential self, the original self (the ox). It is known as the "first stirring of the heart" [sho-hosshin] and is indeed a precious and beautiful movement. Although there are billions of people living on this earth, there are only very few who know that the essential self is completely perfect and absolutely limitless. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that there are hardly any who have realized this in fact and made it a part of themselves. How fortunate that we have encountered the authentic and traditional Buddha Way and taken the first step in its practice! How beautiful and precious indeed!

First step: question everything.

On this earth of ours the first to have realized that our essence is completely perfect and absolutely limitless was Shakyamuni Buddha. So, once you realize it, the completely perfect self (ox) does not go anywhere. Shakyamuni proclaimed that since we are endowed with it from the start there was no need to seek it out. The saying that "all living beings are originally Buddhas" is an expression of this reality.

But how is it with us really? No one has any idea of what way we are completely perfect or how we are absolutely limitless. No matter what, we can only see ourselves as imperfect and insufficient, as relative beings that exist for the limited span of 50 or 80 years. This is because we turn our backs on pursuing the crucial question "What is the true self?" to open our eyes to our real essence, but, instead, go after only the objective world outside us, thus becoming more and more estranged from our true self.

Once we turn to this dust of delusive differentiation, we go from one thing to another pursuing delusions and becoming hopelessly lost in that infinite dust, until finally we have completely lost sight of our true self. A common mistake into which those doing zazen fall is surely this. Therefore, no matter what is seen, no matter what is heard, no matter what comes to mind, not to pay attention to any of it but only become "Mu" itself [cf. Koan "Jôshu's Dog" in Mumonkan Case 1]. But rather, thinking Mu is outside of themselves, people try to grasp it conceptually and go after whatever comes to mind, from one thing to the next, without knowing how to stop. Then, Mu (their true self), which is what they should be seeking, goes off somewhere. As a result, no matter how many years pass, they cannot grasp Mu.

And so the familiar mountains and houses of your native place (true self) become distant, and you can no longer know the road over which you originally came. Even if you want to return, you no longer know the way to go back; rather, you go off on a side road which leads in a direction farther and farther away from the true self. What is that side road, you may ask? It is the endlessly critical mind which arises like a sharp dagger, judging some things good and others bad from the criterion of your own profit-gain.

Not being satisfied with the material world and attempting to achieve a solid spiritual base, you have reached the level of "seeking the ox." But if you make a mistake in the method of Zen, immediately you go down a side road with the result that it would have been better not to do zazen at all. Therefore, at the point of beginning zazen it is extremely important to choose an authentic master; at the same time you must never forget to always have a strict spirit of self-reflection when practicing the Way.

Now let's look at the verse of Master Kakuan:

Incessantly you brush aside thick grasses in pursuit.
If you want to pursue, prepare 
to brush aside thick grasses.

You make the practice of Mu trying with all your might to overtake the ox by sweeping away the grass of delusive discrimination appearing continually. The legs become painful and the knees ache. In the afternoon you become drowsy. At "kinhin" [i.e., walking meditation between zazen sessions] you loosen the legs, wash the face and take away the drowsiness. You revive your spirit and once again challenge Mu.

The waters are wide, the mountains far,
and the path leads on without end.
Have you noticed how wise waters 
can be, or how far mountains are? 
Have you ever seen an end of 
a path? Try it!

No matter how far you go, the channel of the river keeps widening, and the mountain ranges continue far in the distance; you never reach a place where you can say, "Now it is enough." Day after day, there is only sitting facing the wall. Can a person really solve the problems of life by just doing this? Thoughts get confused by the thousands and you go off on an unclear road.

Sapped of strength, exhausted in spirits,
knowing no longer where to search.
When you are tired and 
feel shit, and you don´t know
where to search, 
you are getting close.

Bodily strength is gone as well as mental energy. You don't know what to do. "What can I do? How can I do it?" Only those who have really practiced in a down-to-earth way can understand what it means to reach this point. However, here, at the lowest point, the point of the Great Death, you have reached the very important state that is called "being close to the treasure place."

You only hear the sound of the evening cicadas
chirping in the maple trees.
Seize the moment and
let it spread into everything
around you, and you will discover
things you never knew or 
remembered to exist; 
like cicadas chirping in 
the maple trees.

Shut your mind and open 
your senses to be one 
with all the living around.

It is now evening. The cicadas in the maple trees are singing "miiiin, miiiin" in a frenzy. When you hear their cry you want to cry also. "Oh, today also is finishing in vain." Unless you have experienced this kind of thought a number of times, you cannot find your true self.


The stage of "finding the tracks" is the stage of having discovered the hoofmarks of the ox. In general, the "hoofmarks" signify the stage in which you read and understand the sutras, or study the various teachings of Shakyamuni and of the patriarchs, and come to a conceptual understanding of the content of their experience. That is to say, it is the stage in which you have understood "cerebrally" the existence of the ox.

Second step: question what do you want from life.

However, in actual practice, when you do the practice of Mu with all your might,at first what were two separate entities - yourself and Mu - gradually become one through your efforts and a deepening of Mu practice. And the conviction is born: "if I continue at this rate, I too can certainly make kensho." And then your strength is put into Mu even more. This stage is called that of "finding the tracks."

Mu is Zen, Zen is Mu.

What does it mean to say that you understand conceptually that the ox exists? It means to have understood the principle that all beings in heaven and earth are empty ("Form is emptiness" - [a famous quote from the Prajna-Paramita Sutra or Hannya Shingyô Sutra]). Once you understand the nature of this emptiness you also understand the principle that all things in heaven and on earth are the self. As Monk Jô [who lived in the 4th century China] says: "Heaven and earth and I are of the same root; all things and I are the same body." Now there is an "I" which understands this principle. Yet, insofar as this "I" remains, you do not really understand the true emptiness or the inner state expressed as "Heaven and earth and I are one body."

I am 6.3 billion.

Thus it is necessary to personally experience the fact of "Form is emptiness." And to do that there is only one way: to give your whole self to Mu, to forget the self so that just Mu remains. If you continue this practice, you will eventually at some opportunity or another take hold of the "fact" that you are completely empty and do not exist anywhere and the "fact" that because you are empty everything is yourself. Insofar as you do not actually do this practice nor have this experience, be assured that your Zen is simply conceptual and theoretical Zen.

Those who are captives to this kind of conceptual and theoretical Zen are also spoken of as a whole as those in the position of "finding the tracks." Those who do scholarly research in Zen, no matter how fine and detailed the research is, from the standpoint of the practice of Zen are taken together as being in the stage of "finding the tracks."

Let's now try to appreciate the verse of Master Kakuan:

At the waters edge, under the trees - hoofmarks are numerous.
Have you ever noticed hoofmarks? Try
at the water's edge, under the trees.

Along the water's edge and in the depths of the forest, in every place the hoofmarks of the ox can be seen. Theoretically, "form is emptiness, emptiness is form; heaven and earth and I are of the same root; all things and I are you body." But from the aspect of practice, each and every Mu is every and all the hoofmarks of the ox.

Balmy grasses grow abundantly - can you see them or not?
Have you noticed how much
there are balmy grasses? 
Great, isn´t it?

There are sweet smelling grasses spreading out abundantly and swayed by the wind. The poet challenges us, Can you see them? All things in heaven and on earth, each one by one, are the open and clear and identical expression of this true fact. Do we understand this or not? The verse seems to insinuate that we might comprehend a little with the head, but that we aren't able to truly understand the real thing.

Even if you go deeper and deeper into the mountains.
This happens in mountains, too.

The more you pursues the original ox with your "Muuuuu," the fartherit goes into the recesses of the mountains. If you look at Mu from the outside and try to pursue it, it just keeps going farther and farther away. This is a very important point: your practice must not be one of pursuing and looking at Mu from the outside. It must be one of just completely becoming Mu itself.

How could his nostrils, well compassing the heavens, hide him at all?
You can´t hide behind your nose, 
but it can smell heavenly odours

But wait a moment. With each Mu are we not grasping the muzzle of the ox, and is it not the ox (the real self) itself? Is it not a reality that cannot be hidden anywhere? This is a sincere warning for us.

If you are really faithfully practicing, at first you don't know what is what,but gradually the way of folding the legs,holding the hands, and keeping the position become clear; the way of controlling the breath and the practice of Mu itself becomes understood. If you continue for a few months or half a year or a year, gradually the heart becomes calm and the way of doing Zazen itself begins to deepen. And the conviction arises that if you continue this effort, you will without fail attain enlightenment. You begin to sit with greater and greater enthusiasm. Even conceptually you become certain and your conviction of Zen does not waver even with the slightest thing. You have not yet grasped the ox experientially, but you have fully gotten into gear with the practice of Zen. This is the stage of the position of "finding the tracks."


"Catching sight of the ox" is the stage of having seen clearly the real self. What does it mean to see clearly the real self? Up to that time you have been accustomed to think that there was a "substance" (the ego) which was called the self. But to see the real self clearly is to experience the fact that actually the self is completely devoid of substance and that the so-called ego was never even there!

Third step: separate two things, what others 
want from, and what you personally want.

For many this experience is initiated through some kind of resonating sound. Master Mumon [1183-1260, author of the Mumonkan] attained a great enlightenment as soon as he heard the "boom" of a big drum. Master Kyôgen [? -898] was raking in the garden very earnestly when a stone lodged in his broom flew off and struck a bamboo tree with great force. At the sound of the "whack" the delusion that had enveloped him up to that time was blown away at once and he attained the true self. And so there are many examples of such achievements following upon sounds of various kinds.

In this way when you realize the true self, you reach the source, namely, "whatever you see or hear, each individual thing is, just as it is, the true self." Of course, it is important that this be a true experience. If even a little conceptual thought creeps in, it is not a true experience of "catching sight of the ox."

Assumptions are the mother of
all screw-ups. Let them go.

Let's look at this phenomenon more closely. There are said to be six "roots" [kon] of perception, that is, six sense organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, (tactile) body, and mind. Corresponding to these organs there are six "objects"[kyô] of perception: color and shape, sound, smell, taste, tangible objects, and mental objects. And there are six "consciousnesses" [shiki] which occur when the six sense organs correspond to the six objects of perception: visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, gustatory consciousness, tactile consciousness, mental consciousness. True enlightenment is understanding that each one of these is true reality, devoid of any substance, the true self; among them there exists absolutely no difference.

And it is not only the six sense organs, six objects of perception, and the six consciousnesses which are meant here. Standing, sitting, crying, laughing, eating, drinking, slipping, spilling - all such movements are the true self, the true fact, that is, the ox as a whole really appearing in total openness.

The condition of the true ox as devoid of all content is just like the saltiness in sea water or the glue in the pigment, which cannot be detected from outside. Ordinary people know only the superficial forms like the sea water or pigment. But after enlightenment you realize that there is saltiness in sea water and glue in pigment, and that, in actuality, these elements have been doing their natural work. When you know clearly saltiness which makes sea water what it actually is and glue which makes out pigment, with confidence you can say that this is the ox (the true self). The result is that the entire way of looking at things you have used up to now changes completely.

Let's now take a look at the verse of Kakuan Zenji:

The bush warbler sings on the branch.

Look at branches and you 
might see a nightingale.

The term "bush warbler" means nightingale. The nightingale sits on a branch and warbles in a loud voice. "Catching sight of the ox" (enlightenment) must be a clear experience like this. It is the "boom" of Master Mumon and the "whack" of Master Kyôgen. Insofar as you bring to dokusan some abstraction like, "Each thing in heaven and on earth is itself an expression of Mu," it is not the real thing. Abstractions, concepts, thoughts are play models of Zen and not Zen itself. Both teachers and students of Zen must take this to heart. Accordingly checking this out is very important.

The sun is warm, the breeze gentle,
and the willows on the riverbank are green.

Have you felt how warm 
the sun can feel, how gentle
the breeze can feel, and how
green the willows are in 
a riverbank?

When you have experienced really "catching sight of the ox" (enlightenment), you for the first time escape from the fetters of the ego and see reality just as it is. It is like when you have put down the pack from your shoulders just as the spring sunlight comes through and a gentle breeze flows; the weeping willows on both banks are putting out green leaves and the branches are swaying gently.

There is no place you can escape from him.

Escaping him is escaping 
yourself. Where can you 
hide from yourself?

The true ox being expressed in the softness of this spring scene is not just the world which is seen by the eyes or heard by the ear [ninku]. All the environment surrounding us is the true ox itself [hokku]; all the universe is the ox itself. Thus, if this is true, even should you want to escape from the ox there would be no way to escape. And:

That majestic head and horns could never be painted in a picture.

No one can express or diagram or foretell when and in what way the ox will appear, for the movements of the real ox are very lively in the midst of the forest.

But what we must keep in mind here is that, when you have an experience like this, you feel just like you have gotten hold of the neck of the devil, and before you know it, you are boasting of the experience, neglecting your practice, disregarding the master, such that it would have been better never to have done Zen in the first place. "Catching sight of the ox" is still only the third stage. Know that you must walk a road of continual striving for improvement.


The stage of "seizing the ox" is that at which you have firmly laid hold of the ox, which is our essential nature. The essence of the ox has become clear. At the stage of "catching sight of the ox, " you have only seen the ox. If you slacken your effort, thinking that this is already the highest attainment, the ox soon disappears from sight again. The resulting state is one in which all that remains is the memory of having seen the ox (having reached enlightenment). Thus, if you have reached enlightenment, it is vitally important to continue your practice more and more vigorously to make that world which has been glimpsed become even clearer.

Fourth step: just do it.

However, this ox in our heart for a long time has been set deeply in the outlying fields and in the midst of mountains,which is to say, it has been mired in the phenomenal world of dualism. And because it cannot forget the taste of that world, it has been very difficult to pull it away from it. As the result of long years of practice, for a brief moment today, you have been able to grasp the ox. This is the stage of "seizing the ox."

Well, exactly what does it mean to have seized the ox (real self), you may ask. It means to see clearly, without the mediation of concepts, that the essence of your self is completely empty, and that because the essential self is empty it has the unlimited ability to become anything. The expression in the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, "Form is emptiness," refers to this reality; it is neither a thought nor a concept. When you reach this point, there is no fear of losing the "ox" anymore.

However, the world of dualism that you have become accustomed to so long is a very comfortable world in which to live. The true ox that is completely empty of substance, before you are able to come to know it, separates off and becomes the slave of its surroundings. It becomes buried and is unable to free itself. That part of us which is attached to the old world of dualism is not only very stubborn but also has the tendency to soon get out of control. So, in one way or another you cannot help but thinking there is an objective world outside of yourself. If you understand that from the beginning the essence of your self is empty [shinku], you should also be able to see that the objective world is also empty [hokku]. But in reality, things do not go so easily. In order to further make the world of hokku(world as empty) clear you must work and practice harder and harder. Once you have taken hold of ninku (self as empty) and hokku (world as empty), then for the first time the world of truly "seizing the ox" becomes apparent: the whole universes is only one person, so that "above and under heaven there is only I, alone and sublime."

Now we can appreciate the verse of Master Kakuan:

You have exhausted all your faculties to take hold of him.

Because you found the true ox ("seeing the ox"), you were overjoyed and encouraged a hundredfold. Then, you were further inspired to try to actually grasp the ox with your hands. As a result of this long and persistent pursuit, you were finally able to seize the nostrils of the ox.

Because his spirit is strong and his strength abundant,
it is difficult to rid him of his habits.

But once you grasp this true ox, you find that its habit of seeking the discrimination of dualism remains strong. You put yourself forward everywhere, see the other as other, and are taken up in that world of discrimination. There is danger that those very reins holding the ox, by which you have gone to the trouble to make clear the world of emptiness, will be severed. The bad habit of opposing self and other, because it has perjured over such a long period, does not easily change even though you have understood emptiness. Therefore you must more and more throw yourself into the practice of Zazen.

Sometimes he goes to the top of the high plain.

Let me elucidate that state of not being able to change. At some time, even though it is just for a moment, standing at the pinnacle of "seizing the ox," you linger in the world of emptiness and become attached to the world where - as a famous phrase goes - "there are no living beings to be saved, even if you should want to save them." You boast that "no one has had as deep an enlightenment as I." When your heart is seized by this state, the freedom of mind and action no longer exists. Surely, it is few that have actually experienced such a thorough emptiness, and certainly the joy of having experienced that world is without comparison. But to become attached to that world leads to self-complacency; a person afflicted with Zen sickness like this is nothing but a white elephant that is completely useless for saving other living beings.

Other times he resides in clouds and smoke.

Another facet which is difficult to eradicate is the tendency to return quickly to the world of dualism - the makyô [delusive fantasy] which spreads so easily like a smoke screen. From there it is very hard to escape again. Because the self-consciousness that "I have attained an enlightenment which others couldn't" has become so strong, such a person is, on the contrary, more stubborn than those who have not attained enlightenment. Such people put themselves forward more strongly, and reach a state which is beyond help. Undoubtedly there were some cases like this in the past because there is an ancient term "arrogant Zen-devil" [zen-tenma] to warn against just such a state. To avoid that pitfall, you must, after reaching enlightenment, become more and more humble and put yourself more into Zen practice.

It´s of no use to continue. Language, both
written and spoken, contain presumptions and
assumptions making them useless for
describing something of no-existence and
no-thing. It´s a matter of a posteriori, not a priori,
as a priori exists only in the world of fantasies.
Just sit tight.
(The rest of the verses have been deleted as they 
are nothing but obsolete.)

Translated by J. CUSUMANO?SATÔ M

Source: Terebess Asia Online (TAO).

The Ten Oxherding Pictures
Paintings by YOKOO Tatsuhiko
(Kuroya 1801-10, Chichibu-shi, 368-0001 Japan)

Teisho by KUBOTA Ji'un.

Html simplified and comments added by The Zen Devils.

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