In search of the (original?) Oxen!

…sounds like Zen, might be Zen, but is no Zen?

Hidden within in the scholastic bodies of ancient Theravadin commentarial literature dwell gems of wisdom taught by ancient Masters of Buddhist meditation. One such beautiful little gem, an allegory, really needs some more attention.

Everyone knows about the 10 pictures in the ZEN tradition of “Taming the Wild Ox” but only a few know that a similar story of a farmer who is out looking for his oxen can already be found in the Visuddhimagga, a commentary on Theravada Buddhism compiled about 500 AD. The Visuddhimagga, the crown jewel of commentarial literature is far more than a dry scholastic theoretical treatise. Based on the suttas, commentaries and Buddhist practice of the 1-3rd century the famous commentator Buddhaghosa put together many pragmatic meditation instructions both of concentration and insight meditation.

This particular story, the potential boilerplate version for the now famous ZEN story, appears in the Wisdom section of the Visuddhimagga, chapter XXI, and describes and compares the insight process of a meditator to a farmer’s different stages of search and discovery of his lost ox.

While in ZEN this story became quite mystical and, well, Zen-like 🙂 it is pretty down to earth and sounds Theravadin clear cut (bordering to boring) in pali. Have a look at the following few lines with an attempt in translation further below:

793. Goti ekassa kira kassakassa rattibhāge niddaṃ okkantassa vajaṃ bhinditvā goṇā palātā, so paccūsasamaye tattha gantvā olokento tesaṃ palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā anupadaṃ gantvā rañño goṇe addasa. Te ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti sallakkhetvā āharanto pabhātakāle ‘‘na ime mayhaṃ goṇā, rañño goṇā’’ti sañjānitvā ‘‘yāva maṃ ‘coro aya’nti gahetvā rājapurisā na anayabyasanaṃ pāpenti, tāvadeva palāyissāmī’’ti bhīto goṇe pahāya vegena palāyitvā nibbhayaṭṭhāne aṭṭhāsi. Tattha ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti rājagoṇānaṃ gahaṇaṃ viya bālaputhujjanassa ‘‘ahaṃ mamā’’ti khandhānaṃ gahaṇaṃ, pabhāte ‘‘rājagoṇā’’ti sañjānanaṃ viya yogino tilakkhaṇavasena khandhānaṃ ‘‘aniccā dukkhā anattā’’ti sañjānanaṃ, bhītakālo viya bhayatupaṭṭhānañāṇaṃ, vissajjitvā gantukāmatā viya muñcitukamyatā, vissajjanaṃ viya gotrabhu, palāyanaṃ viya maggo, palāyitvā abhayadese ṭhānaṃ viya phalaṃ.

The “ox”. Once there was a farmer, as they say, who in the night became overwhelmed by sleep and his oxen broke through the fence running away.

When we woke up in the early morning and went to where he kept his oxen he realized that they had run away [“palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā” – having known their running-away-nature]. Then he followed their tracks and saw the king’s oxen. He labelled [sallakkheti]  them “These are mine” (mistakenly) and took them with him. Later, when the sun had come out, he realized (sañjānitvā) “Not are these my oxen, they belong to the king”. When they will catch me thus “He is a thief” the king’s men will make me come into distress and misfortune. I will therefore quickly send them away. Full of fear he quickly ran away and later, free of fear found a place to rest.

In this story grasping the king’s oxen thus “my oxen” is the same as the foolish worldling’s grasping of the groups (khandhas) thus “I, mine”. The realization in the morning (when the sun came out) with “These are the king’s oxen” is similar to the Yogis realization of the groups thus “impermanent, suffering, non-self” with the help of the three characteristics. The time he is afraid resembles the arising of the insight knowledge of fear and the wish to expel them is similar to the insight knowledge of desire for freedom. The actual dismissing them is the gotrabhu-insight knowledge. Their running off is similar to the attainment of Nibbana (magga) and when he ran away, that place free from any fear is a synonym for the fruit of Nibbana (phala, the meditative state).

This was a pretty self explaining metaphor. A nice analogy which was intended to help understanding exactly what and how we react when vipassana meditation starts to uncover the true characteristics of life. From the insight into seeing and falling, over a period of fear and disorientation to the desire to let go and the eventual freedom ensuing with the peace of Nibbana. For further information read on “the insight knowledges

If this is really the same “Meme” then it is interesting to see how 300-500 years later this story surfaces in ZEN writings in Japan. Here is a short quote on the ZEN history and Chinese whispers [ :-), the story really went through China as the Visuddhimagga or more likely the Vimuttimagga where translated in China in the 6th century and found their way into the Chinese Chan culture. Especially the pragmatic aspect of the Vimuttimagga/Visuddhimagga must have had a strong influence on Chinese Chan masters].

Among the various formulations of the levels of realization in Zen, none is more widely known than the Oxherding Pictures, a sequence of ten illustrations annotated with comments in prose and verse. It is probably because of the sacred nature of the ox in ancient India that this animal came to be used to symbolize man’s primal nature or Buddha-mind. The original drawings and the commentary that accompanies them are both attributed to Kakuan Shien (Kuo-an Shih-yuan), a Chinese Zen master of the twelfth century, but he was not the first to illustrate the developing stages of Zen realization through pictures. Earlier versions of five and eight pictures exist in which the ox becomes progressively whiter, the last painting being a circle. [Hm, should we think Nibbana?! Like in our Visuddhimagga story…]

This implied,that the realization of Oneness (i.e., the effacement of every conception of self and other) was the ultimate goal of Zen. But Kakuan, feeling this to be incomplete, added two more pictures beyond the circle to make it clear that the Zen man of the highest spiritual development lives in the mundane world of form and diversity and mingles with the utmost freedom among ordinary men, whom he inspires with his compassion and radiance to walk in the Way of the Buddha. [Sources: Here]

“Since the ninth century, students of Zen Buddhism have drawn a parallel between the individual
path to enlightenment and the story of the herder and his missing ox. There are 10 stages in the
parable, beginning with the search for the ox, in which a boy is racked with doubt because “Nothing
has been lost in the first place,/ So what is the use of searching?” In the final stage, the boy
reappears as the Buddha of the Future, enlightened. The scroll reprinted here is the oldest
known version of the Japanese Ten Oxherding Songs, dating to 1278, and the only known
example with illustrations in color along with the calligraphy. [Source: Here]

This is a beautiful clear example for the differences but also joint history of Zen-Mahayana and Theravadin Buddhist practice. But of course, not necessarily do we have a connection here. The idea of using an oxen to display levels of progress suggests it, but oxen are all over the place and taming them could have been used regardless of any older tradition.

It is funny though, that our Visuddhimagga text starts to get interesting where the Zen pictures stop. When the farmer realizes his deadly mistake, he quickly lets go of the oxen. Our Zen farmer, after bringing the oxen home, seems content. Maybe its his oxen after all 🙂

OR, if you look at some of the ZEN interpretations there are actually some which could be better understood if someone would take this Visuddhimagga text and check the pictures again…If  you follow this link you can see how the farmer now roams about, in a secure place and the oxen is gone…maybe he let it go,  like the Visuddhimagga suggests would be prudent 🙂 ! Just have a look at some of the descriptions of step 7 and 8 in the story of the oxen with the pali text.

Ox lost, man remaining

As an expression of the Theravada spirit of this Blog, however, we let our search for the oxen end in the beautiful empty circle, a synonym for Nibbana:


(1)If you were to just follow the “idea” of taming a bull and look for references in the suttas, you might come up with an article like this by Ven. Walpola Rahula. My guess is he was not aware of this particular similie in the Visuddhimagga which fits the story of the bull much better than other references to the general theme of “taming” the mind like an unruly animal. The Zen story revolves around stages of development – exactly the same ideas as in the analogy given in the Visuddhimagga – a picturesque walk through a ZEN’s version of the insight knowledge…

(2) Other references: Herding the Ox

(3) Visuddhimagga/Vimuttimagga in Chinese Tripitaka: “Samghapala (459-524 C.E.), the translator of the Chinese ver sion of the A-yu-wang jing, was a monk from the kingdom of Funan (in the eastern part of present-day Thailand), who came to China during the Qi dynasty (479-501 C.E.) and stayed at Zheng guan Monastery in the capital, where he studied Mahayana texts under the Indian monk Gunabhadra and “mastered the languages of several countries”. When Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty came to power, he invited Samghapala in the fifth year of Tian jinn (506 C.E.) to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. In the course of the subsequent seventeen years, he translated eleven Buddhist texts into Chinese, making a total of forty-eight fascicles, including the A yu-wang jing and the Vimuktimarga, with the assistance of Chinese Buddhist monks and lay scholars under imperial patronage. In the fifth year of Pu-tong (524 C.E.), he died of illness at the age of sixty-five at Zheng-guan Monastery.”

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  1. Har-Prakash Khalsa

    Hi there,

    Thank you. I just discovered your site and like it a lot.

    Re. Vipassana and Zen, Shinzen Young is a Vipassana teacher who’s been a Zen student for over 30 years. Here’s his description of the Zen ox-herding pics from a dharma talk at one of his Vipassana retreats.

    With blessings and gratitude, Har-Prakash Khalsa.

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