In search of the OX - A Zen Story



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.


Note: Picture downloaded by https://www.sloww.co/zen-ten-bulls-oxherding-pictures/.

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