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Ten Oxherding Pictures

 Introduction to the Ten Oxherding Pictures
by Urs App
The protagonist of this poetic picture story, a boy herdsman, stands for none other than you, dear reader. It is the very “I” that reads these lines through a pair of eyes, the subject of your life, the protagonist of that unique story that is yours. It is what thinks your thoughts, makes your plans, has your desires, and signs your checks: it is what was born of your parents and will die on your deathbed.

This “I” is also the starting point of the Zen Buddhist quest.
When a Chinese man called Huike, according to a Zen story, met Bodhidharma, the following conversation ensued:

  • Huike: “Please, Master, bring peace to my heart-mind!” Bodhidharma: “Show it to me, and I will pacify it!” Huike: “I have searched for it, but I could not find it.” Bodhidharma: “If you could search for it, how could it be your very own heart-mind?”

In Zen Buddhism, the injunction “show me your self” has a particular ring, as the root-source of man’s basic dissatisfaction and the engine of his striving is none other than this “I”. The Japanese Zen master Bankei, for example, diagnosed the basic human problem as follows:

  • Your self-partiality is at the root of all your illusions. There aren’t any illusions when you don’t have this preference for yourself.

Rather than being the goal of man’s quest, Zen thus sees the “I” as the very problem. Thus the herdsman, who has an “I” just as all of us do, sets out in search of what he truly is.
The object of this search, man’s true self, is represented by an ox or buffalo. The quest extends from the seeing of faint traces (picture 2) to the thorough overcoming of the problematic “I” with all of its objects (including the ox; picture 8) — and to the emergence of nature as it truly is (9).

In the Indian Upanishads, the highest spiritual goal is the realization that one’s own true self, one’s atman, is nothing other than the very essence of everything, i.e., brahman. “Tat tvam asi”, “That thou art,” is its expression.
In terms of the present classic of Zen literature, the Ten Oxherding Pictures, that means: your true self, what you really are without realizing it, is nothing other than that ox and that flower, or your neighbor. Thus the true man in picture 10 is not aloof from the world but rather right here, in the bustle of the marketplace.

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  Last Update: 2002/11/01