LOOK: The Ten Ox Herding Pictures, the Depiction of Enlightenment

Photo courtesy of Integral Life

The Year of the Metal Ox might be a great time to learn about a significant series of poems and murals that features the sturdy animal. The Ten Ox Herding Pictures, known in Chinese as “Shiniu,” is used in the Zen tradition to symbolize the stages of enlightenment and the return to society to enact the wisdom and compassion one has learned. For many, it’s one of the best models for depicting the awakening process.

The bull has been a simile to the meditation practice for years. It originated in Indian literary traditions, but as Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia, the simile of the bull spread alongside it. The bull represents the “eternal principle of life, truth in action,” which we’re always seeking to grasp and tame until we become one with it.

Different versions

In the 12th century, the well-known Ten Ox Herding Pictures emerged in China. There are four Chinese versions.

The first series is believed to have been made by Ching-chu in the 11th century. Ching-Chu’s version only has five pictures, and it features the ox’s color changing from black to white. The transition is meant to represent the gradual development of the meditation practitioner, ending in their disappearance.

On the other hand, Tzu-te Hui made a version with six pictures. The first five were similar to Ching-chu’s while the sixth showed a stage that went beyond the stage of emptiness, which is where Ching-chu’s version ended.

A third version was made by an unknown author and is the most popular version in China. It’s similar to the two previously mentioned versions in that the bull also changes from dark to white in the ten pictures that are included in this series.

The most recognizable version was drawn by the 12th century Chinese Zen Master Kuoan Shiyuan. He also wrote accompanying poems and introductory words. There is no whitening of the bull in this version, nor does it end with emptiness or absolute truth. Instead, it shows a return to the world featuring the laughing Buddha, Putai.

This version gained wide circulation in Japan and the West after inclusion in a book called, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Here is Kuoan Shiyuan’s Ten Bulls Murals:


1. In Search of the Bull

“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.”


2. Discovery of the Footprints

“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.”


3. Perceiving the Bull

“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?”


4. Catching the Bull

“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.”


5. Taming the Bull

“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.”


6. Riding the Bull Home

“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.”


7. The Bull Transcended

“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.”


8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

“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.”


9. Reaching 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.”


10. Return to Society

“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.”


Interested in more philosophy? Check out this article for the main tenets of Taoism.

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