The Oxherding Pictures

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The Ten Ox Herding Pictures

From a talk by Master Sheng Yen.

The Ten Ox Herding Pictures are metaphors for the process and progress of Chan practice. When China was an agricultural society, people depended on oxen and buffalo to work their fields. These animals were important, powerful and part of human life, so the analogy of ox herding was meaningful to Buddhists of the time.

An early incidence of ox herding as a metaphor for practice can be found in a story from the Tang Dynasty (618-906). A monk was working in the monastery kitchen when his master came in and asked what he was doing. He replied, "Nothing much, just herding the ox."

The Master asked, "How are you herding it?"

The monk replied, "Every time the ox wanders off to eat grass when he should be working, I rein him in and put him back to work."

This story became a kung-an in which the ox represents the mind, which the ox herder must train. In Chan practice, the emphasis is on mental, not physical, practice. If the mind is not pure, there can be no purity in body and speech.

In the Lotus Sutra the white ox is a metaphor for transcendence of the cycle of birth and death, or samsara. Anyone who sees the white ox sees the great vehicle (of Mahayana Buddhism) which can be taken to Buddhahood.

Many versions of the ox herding pictures were created during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). They were often accompanied by poetry. The most famous is attributed to K'uo-an Shih-yuan, a twelfth century Chan master of the Linji (Lin-chi) school. All versions illustrate the process and levels of Chan practice, as well as the recognition of Buddha-nature, our original nature.

Do you believe that you have this ox, this Buddha-nature, within yourself? If you have no faith in the existence of Buddha-nature, or in the possibility of experiencing your intrinsic self then ox herding is irrelevant. If there is no ox to herd, there can be no ox herding, no progression. This is true for people who have no interest in discovering their intrinsic nature, as well as for those who once held the ox and let it go.