The Japan Society in New York is sponsoring an exhibit of the Ten Oxherding Pictures from October 1st through January 16th and will be on view concurrently with the “Sound of One Hand Clapping: Paintings and Calligraphy of Zen Master Hakuin” [described by myself earlier here].
The pictures and associated poems represent, especially in the Zen tradition, the stages a practitioner takes as she stumbles towards enlightenment. The mind as represented by the Ox is fumbled after by a bumbling but budding practitioner that grows on the path as the pictures proceed. The pictures were originally drawn by Chan master Kuoan Shiyuan during the 12th century and have been the inspiration for many modern renditions and contemporary interpretations.
The exhibit will feature a collaboration of two internationally known artists, Max Gimblett and Lewis Hyde. The pictures are sumi in style but largely abstract in form and shockingly loud in presentation. While the original Ox Herding pictures relied upon the mundane images of hunting down an Ox to describe finding enlightenment, Gimblett and Hyde rely more on dramatic emotion and expression to portray the struggle of practice and the seething turbulence present in the deluded mind. A wonderful focus and inspiring pieces of work. For some more info on Hyde’s translations of the pictures go here.
In addition, there will be a lecture on the 13th of October (an auspicious day for myself as it is my rebirthday) by artist Lewis Hyde and psychiatrist Mark Epstein on the interface between Buddhism and psychotherapy. With moderator James Shaheen, Editor of Tricycle, this lecture will be an interesting one and one that I am sorry to miss. [more details here]
In the spirit of interpreting the pictures, the following is my own humble explanation. From a person still searching the great plains for an elusive Ox, I think I look forward to the time when I can ride that bastard home.
In the first picture “Seeking the Ox” we are just setting foot on the spiritual path ahead of us and are blissfully unaware of what the ox is or how it can be found. With all the horizon around us we scan constantly for anything but the resulting task can only result in frustration while still living in a world of illusion.
In the second picture “Finding the tracks” our intrepid searcher has ceased scanning the horizon and has begun to look within. While the ox still eludes us, we find tracks ,scat and the occasional broken twig to alert us of his presence. I liken it to the first solemn or flippant adventure into zazen where still clueless we begin to search in the right direction.
KATSU! The third picture “First Glimpse of the Ox” represents our first experiencial view of the Mind. Clouds open up briefly and we see the open sky but the cloud quickly close and the ox runs back into the weeds. Upon retrospection it could have just been a daydream or a bit of indigestion.
The fourth picture “Catching the Ox” represents the ability to view our past thoughts and patterns of thought as delusional. We now understand and realize the ox but the ox is still wild and unruly. Unwilling to be grasped, the ox still stamps the ground and pulls at the tether. The strength of the ox becomes more appearant.
“Taming the the Ox” represents the practitioner becoming more and more at ease with his own true nature. Practice is still not a thing of ease but the ox has become tolerant and tame to the tethers that we place upon it. It no longer runs free in the weeds but follows us with bowed head and red eyes.
In the 6th picture “Riding the Ox Home”, the animal is finally completely tamed. Advanced and persistant practice has removed the need of rope and tether. Both ox and man move together with ease but the delusion of a seperate ox and practitioner still exists.
“Ox Forgotten, Self Alone” represents the moment where ox and practitioner become one. With duality transcended and awareness present, the practitioner is free to continue pracitce without constant attachment to concepts and worldly things.
In “Both Ox and Self Forgotten” no picture is represented since at this point shunyata (emptiness) is realized. Both the searcher and the ox were realized as one but now even that conception is dropped. This is satori. This is liberation. Nothing worth experiencing when everything is already experienced.
In the 9th picture “Return to the source” we are back at the beginning but no ox, no practitioner and no active searching. Everything is calm, fluid and impermanent. But it doesn’t matter. It sets the stage for a new practitioner to wander out and peer into the horizon dutifully searching for the ox.
I like to think of the final picture, “Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands” as a return to life. A return to the mundane. A lifetime of searching that can stretch years or moments all for the understanding that each moment can encapsulate all of the Ox Herding pictures. Each moment a search, a catch and a release. But once released we return to guide down the same path.