Here is how I understand the Zen Ox-herding Pictures. They were explained to me when I was studying Zen life in Japan on a college trip. I have being actively interpreting their influence ever since.
They are close as I have for a blueprint of how I live and what I try to bring into the world.
This is a little boy, who wants go and find the ox.
The ox, as I see it, is the great big whatever we’re each of us searching for, the kernel of our souls feels unfilled, unplumbed. It may be deep self-knowledge, it may be full Buddhist Enlightenment, it may be an awareness and surety of what we are individually here on earth to do, it may be something else entirely. I don’t know what you seek, and neither may you, but the ox is a stand in for whatever that may be.
Second, the boy has found some tracks to follow. He doesn’t know where they lead, but off he goes, trusting that an ox will be at the end of this trail. Is it his ox? Is another’s? No way to know but take off and see.
Third, the boy spies part of the ox. He can’t see the whole thing, just enough to suspect that it is what he was looking for. He sizes the ox up, readies himself to try to know it, find himself equal it, to bring it home.
Fourth, they struggle. The boy has to hold on, the ox—so happily found, so long sought—has no cognizance of being object of the boy’s quest or destiny. I love this; there are no easy answers. Truth, though obvious, may be hard to reconcile. I believe there is greatness in our attempts, in the trials of struggling with and for what is precious.
Fifth, the boy has a hold of the ox and they are walking onward. This isn't some sort of Taming of the Shrew type situation—the ox is still separate and the boy is easily, but thinly, connected with what he sought.
Sixth, the rope is gone. The boy and the ox move as one creature. There is no need to struggle or control, they are merged.
Seventh, the boy is at home and unconcerned about the ox because he knows its whereabouts as well as he knows himself.
Eighth, the emptiness of life and the world. I think of this as the sort of big picture, long view, the recognition of how brief a time we have to live and how enormous and eternal the world is, and your insignificance.
Ninth, the fullness of life and the world. This is the intricacies of it all, of the small scale, the daily life, the immediate, the visceral, and your significance.
The Zen scholar, Robert E. Carter, who explained the pictures to me the first time said that he tried to look at the world by aligning these two—full and empty—as two lenses of a telescope, to be in the world through both scales. You live within the tension between the two, focusing one now, then the other.
It is the tenth ox-herding picture that I think of most. The old man here is the little boy who sought the ox. He has aged, fattened, and lived a full life. A different kid approaches him to say “I’m looking for the ox; have you seen it?”
And the former ox-searcher’s only advice is, “Well, this is where and how I found it…”
It’s not that the new boy will find the same ox in the same place, but that one of the greatest things we can offer each other is the truth of our own experiences. When I was nineteen and in Japan with my college philosophy professor, Erin McCarthy, it was timemelting to have Carter, who had been her college professor, explain this linking of searches.
Part of why I write is because I don’t know where the marketplace is, or who might be looking or asking for guidance, but I know that I am far from the only person who wants to salvage the world, who wants to build a better system to be human within, who has been to the mountaintop and seen that we don’t have to live in the ticky-tacky boxes and sneakily rigid expectations and assumptions of our society. I offer my words from a place of hope and humility, a "this is what has worked for me, use it or no, and good luck to you finding your happiness!” idea.
When I have the various discussions about if anyone is doing their right thing, in searching for their heart and the courage to follow it, about how to start and sustain The Revolution, about how to live well and happily in the world, there are so many questions. “Is this right? What do I want? Is this what I really want? Is this what I am supposed to be doing? If this isn’t wrong, does it have to be right? Is this enough? How come if this is the right thing to do, it’s still so hard? Am I enough? How do we get all of ‘them’ to join in? Do we want ‘them’ to join in the first place? Should we change the system from within, or rebel and make something new, or run away and tend the fires of our hearts fully and exclusively far from the maddening crowd of it all?” and so on.
I wouldn’t have even thought to ask these questions in the first place if I hadn’t started, early, turning away from whatever passes for normal. I left high school after three years and worked and traveled, I went to college and lived in the woods and traveled more, I stuck to the mountains and wild places as much as possible, I read a lot, I strive to own only what I find useful or beautiful, I work on keeping my heart and mind open, I am grateful to be well loved and aware of the honor and responsibility it is to be loved, I make mistakes, I get my heart and bones broken, I take risks but am not reckless, and—perhaps most importantly—I surround myself with people who are better at exploring questions than accepting answers.
That’s the best way I know to find everything worthwhile. Because it takes a certain amount of courage to even ask the questions, to come to the market place as the little boy does and say “I suspect there is something better than what I see, what I am told to believe—I cannot be the only one who thinks this. Does anyone agree? Can anyone help me, reassure that I am not crazy, that there are deeper and cleaner and happier ways of being in the world?” It's nice to know we are none of us alone in this.
We have to find our own oxen, build our own herd of truths, but it doesn’t mean we need to search alone. Rather, I think, the opposite. We need to ask questions, and the truths we're all and each in search of deserve all and every reassurance and support we can give each other.
(Copies of Tomikichiro Tokuriki's woodcut prints are from www.4peaks.com.)