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In search of the OX - A Zen Story

Updated: Apr 27

There are many lessons we get to learn from the zen masters of all time.

Stories that touch our lives. Make us more aligned to the out higher self. The ones which help us grow into more compassionate beings and also the ones that inspire us to follow the pathless path of enlightenment.

Out of many such uncountable mesmerizing stories of Zen Literature, there is one story, that defines the stages of enlightenment. It is a series of ten poems about a farmer and his trouble with an OX. The poems piercingly go deep and inspire us to open the lotus that blossoms forever consciously.

The poems are more metaphorical and leave us for our own understanding.

It points towards a journey that each one will certainly follow. Our search for the OX, finding it, tracking it, catching it, taming it, and riding it home.

If you only want to read the poems, They are here in this picture.

Now, If you want to read more, Please go ahead.

There are various versions of this story. It is roughly 10 centuries old. Popularly, four well-known versions have been created throughout history with different stages in them. I am putting the story with 10 pictures here. It’s said that the original version ended at a picture of complete dissolution. However, this one with 10 pictures goes beyond emptiness and shows a return to the world.

What is the meaning of the Ten Bulls / Oxherding Pictures?

The ‘Ten Bulls of Zen’ is a metaphoric depiction of stages of self-realization. It remains as a perfect depiction of the awakening process.” It is a series of short poems and drawings used in Zen to describe how one goes through the whole process of awakening.

What do the 'Ox' represent in the story?

The Ox represents the infinite eternal principle of life. Our primordial existential real self. Out truth. Who we are.

What do the 'Man' represent in the story?

Our imperfect, illusory, identified with the ego, limited, and relative self. The separate self which we 'think' is real, but its absolutely imaginary, illusory, empty.

The illusory self(Man) seeks the (Ox), finds it, tames it, and becomes one with it, awakens as an aligned, unlimited, and absolute essential self(One with everything).

Let's get into the story now!!

1. In Search of the Bull / Searching for the Ox

  • In the pasture of the world,

  • I endlessly push aside the tall

  • grasses in search of the Ox.

  • Following unnamed rivers,

  • lost upon the interpenetrating

  • paths of distant mountains,

  • My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the Ox.

The first picture shows the oxherd is desperately looking for the Ox. Utterly disappointed by his life, unable to find the eternal bliss that he seeks.

He questions:

Does eternal bliss even exist?

Will I ever be free from this life full of suffering?

Who am I? What is the point of this life?

What am I doing here? Where I am going?

Why do I need to live? Why am I scared of death?

Why everything hurts me so much?

Why everything is so evil? Why people are not the way they should me?

Why is it so hard for me?

Do I belong here? What is my true nature?

He finds that his efforts to earn a lot of money, becoming wealthy, having possessions, family, friends, fame, and pleasure have not brought him the fulfillment he is seeking.

He still feels empty inside. He doesn't know what he is seeking, but he knows something is missing, something that will make life meaningful and bring him lasting happiness.

The inspiration to find the answer is the first step, which is searching for the ox, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is incomplete. Looking for something that will make the situation right. You discover that the ego’s attempt to create an ideal environment has failed miserably. Having all the materialistic things we count for success, was not enough.

2. Discovery of the Footprints / Seeing the Traces

Along the riverbank under the trees,

I discover footprints.

Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints.

Deep in remote mountains, they are found.

These traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

The second picture shows that the man has now seen the footsteps of the tracks of the ox. He is delighted that he has not lost the Ox forever.

Now he has realized that solutions to his problems are to be sought following the footsteps of the Ox. So now he is seeking solutions, to find a path he would feel is right for him. But he is still at the stage of thinking mind. Discussing and blabbering about his issues and their possible solutions. The path has not been seen yet, but his inspiration has been sought.

When we get to know that there are solutions to get our of these issues, we discover the tools of exploring our inner self. Through teachings, traditions, gurus, guidance. We may start meditating, for example, We don't know the depths of it, but we have tasted the inner calm, there is the light that makes us feel closer to the emptiness.

We start to see that, "Yes, there is a mask that we are wearing!" We see the origin which shows us a path to end our suffering. To Transcend.

3. Perceiving the Bull / Seeing the Ox

I hear the song of the nightingale.

The sun is warm, the wind is mild,

willows are green along the shore – Here no Ox can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head,

those majestic horns?

Once we have seen the Ox, We get a glimpse of what could lie beyond, beyond the level of mind and thinking. A world beyond mind.

That tiny light gives us a ray of hope of a path that can be followed. We glimpse the Great awakening through a small opening, a small intimation. Perhaps this comes with lots of confusion, days and days of getting in and out of the illusion, being unable to understand what really it is what not, finding answers and then again falling back on the way of duality.

We lived for ages in delusion, We see that glimpse of Ox and the mind starts its work, thinking. We start thinking that we got it! We have seen it! But it was just the horns or face or tail of the Ox.

But even though, it's not the whole Ox. The divinity is tasted and that inspires us to follow the path.

The Illusion of separation begins to shatter. Its the beginning of understanding that he is no different from all the other things that exist. He is one with all.

4. Catching the Bull / Catching the Ox

I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power

are inexhaustible.

He charges to the high plateau

far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine, he stands.

Like anything else, it requires practice and efforts.

To reach the stage of Effortless Efforts, You need to learn both. Being effortless and doing efforts, when the balance is installed, it becomes an effortless effort. There is the rigorous discipline required to attain the state of an ultimate being.

The man now realizes that the power to transform his life from living unconsciously to consciously lies all within his own self.

It is possible to let go of the life that has been inherited from the part and to start living the one which comes through inner self.

He realizes he must work hard to overcome his perceived enemies like anger, hatred, envy, ignorance, craving, and clinging and more towards love and compassion.

Rather than, knowing it all, its time for him to take some actions.

The bull cannot be tamed with aggression, rather surrender of aggression is required and also a commitment to follow the path for a longer time frame.

5. Taming the Bull / Herding the Ox

The whip and rope are necessary,

Else he might stray off down

some dusty road.

Being well-trained, he becomes

naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

We all are conditioned beings, and it needs efforts to let go of that conditioned self. A disciplined practice can overcome bad habits and bring one into alignment with the truth.

The mind is powerful and it always plays with us. It will always try to distract us toward pleasure and attainment of pleasure and make us resist the avoidance of pain.

Now as the ox follows him home, the separation between oneself and true reality is being overcome.

The patterns to live life are changing, habits are being unlearned, compassion and wisdom is being realized, practiced, and experienced.

Once caught, the taming of the ox is achieved by awareness and a glimpse of transcendental knowledge.

6. Riding the Bull Home / Coming Home on the Ox’s Back

Mounting the Ox, slowly

I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones through the evening.

Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony,

I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody will join me.

The man's mind becomes tranquil as he now joyfully walks with the Ox.

The Union with everything was experienced. The man is joyful and plays the flute. He is becoming aligned with his higher self. He unlearned what he was not and he has been freed from old fears and anxieties and that so freed, he can now express his creative energies in celebration of life.

When we get to know that there is a world beyond the thinking mind. We start to flow. We lose our created egoic identities and our personality shines through our masks. We live with complete acceptance of what is and enjoy the play of life.

We no longer search. The Ox is alignment with the man and they both move forward together. This is the breakthrough to the state of enlightenment. The effortless effort.

7. The Bull Transcended / The Ox Forgotten

Astride the Ox, I reach home.

I am serene. The Ox too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling

I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

The man now realizes, his identity with the Ox. Now, he is ready, the Ox can be forgotten. As he has now dissolved into him. Now, it is none other than the experience of everyday things. The separation of efforts and realization has now been overcome, and so is the separation of ordinary reality and the ultimate reality.

Until now, The man was practicing meditation, yoga, or whatever in an external form, as a means to achieve liberation. But with the realization of the non-duality of existence comes awareness of the identity of means and ends; practice itself is realization.

We’ve lost the ox, we’ve found the ox—who can even remember what that search was for? Truth? As soon as it is mentioned, it disappears. Yet in this very place, where fundamentally nothing is acquired, we really do acquire it.

Now even that happiness of achieving it dissolves. The total absence of the idea of the experience. There is no more Ox. Experiential Wisdom has become more and more apparent and you totally abandon the mind, you are ready to use it, only when there is a need.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended / The Ox and the Man Both Forgotten

Whip, rope, person, and Ox –

all merge in No Thing.

This heaven is so vast, no message can stain it.

How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire.

Here are the footprints of the Ancestors.

Now, The veil of illusion of separation shatters. The duality of self and reality has been overcome not only is reality (the ox) forgotten but so is the self (the Man);

The emptiness of the circle symbolizes the all-encompassing emptiness that constitutes everything.

Like dancing stillness. Something which is completely empty yet utterly full.

No self and I amness now become one.

Now, in the awareness of oneness in every experience, one is freed from all craving and aversions. In this freedom, there is a sense of the wholeness and perfection of ordinary things.

Here, in this one bright pearl of a universe, there is not even a single thing.

No self, no True Nature; no bramhan; no delusion, no wisdom; no seeking, no finding. No seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—and of utmost importance, no knowing. There is also no dharma. And even emptiness is empty in its completeness.

9. Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.

Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!

Dwelling in one’s true abode,

unconcerned with and without –

The river flows tranquilly on

and the flowers are red.

The self and reality (as constructs) are now left behind, then things are revealed to be just what they are in themselves; River naturally flows, red flowers naturally bloom red, No force, no push, everything flows. The man starts living each moment, in the ordinary events of life are found the most profound truths. Only by seeking the ox as a separate ultimate reality could he discover for himself that there was never a separate reality; that the ultimate is to be found in the ordinary.

What is has always been.

No fear, no insecurity remains. Acceptance arises. Wisdom is now experienced into every facet of life. The source of energy which need not be sought is there. It is that you are rich, abundant, and now you do not need anything to make you complete externally. Compassion is alive and so all communication is creative.

10. Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands

Barefooted and naked of breast,

I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden,

and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the dead trees

become alive.

Now the enlightened man enters the village.

There's another saying in Zen,

Before enlightenment, Chop Wood, Carry Water.
After Enlightenment, Chop Wood, Carry Water.

Now the man is doing all of the ordinary things that everyone else does. But because of his deep awareness everything he does is quite extraordinary.

He is not a meditating pacifist but shares his enlightened existence with everyone around him. His radiance not shines limitlessly.

He is now in a fully awakened state, all action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred countless numbers of mirrors. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. The state is dealing with sublime simplicity, transcending. You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to be subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care.

And that was the story of The man searching from his Ox.

Are you ready to take on the journey of finding the Ox? Which is always there but we can't see it?

The pictures are placed in a certain color, they are not random.

Ready to begin your journey? Check out of library here!

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