The Ten Ox Herding Pictures
The following is a talk on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures delivered by Nakamura Tempū in 1965, the transcript of which appears in Seidai-na Jinsei (A Prodigious Life). The Ten Ox Herding Pictures, as Tempū explains, are a series of ten pictures, passed down within the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, that represent, allegorically, ten stages along the Buddhist path to enlightenment or liberation. Here, however, Tempū seeks to explain them in secular terms for the benefit of his secular audience. As the transcript is lengthy—the talk must have gone on for three or four hours—I have broken it up into sections, beginning with this introduction and continuing with his commentaries on each of the pictures in turn.
Today I will be talking to you about the Ten Bulls, or the Ten Ox Herding Pictures. But before I begin, when I gave this same talk the other day in Tokyo, I was asked, “Ox Herding Pictures? What are you talking about?” So, I should probably first tell you what the Ten Ox Herding Pictures are.
What I said in Tokyo was, “They are a set of pictures from the teachings of Zen that are meant to describe the various stages of shugyō [修行; ascetic training]. Zen, as you know, is among the most austere of disciplines.”
To which people responded, “Sensei, why do you need to tell us about Zen? What purpose will that serve?”
“Well, of course, you’re right,” I answered. “I’m a man of modern means. I don’t need to resort to the old-fashioned teachings of Zen to explain my teachings. But as you also know, my shin-shin tōitsu method owes much to the teachings of yoga; well, the teachings of yoga and the teachings of Zen are fundamentally similar. The philosophy of yoga is over five thousand years old, while Zen is about two thousand years old, so they came out of different historical periods. But nevertheless, there is much to be admired in Zen; it’s teachings can do much to inform your practice.
“Anyway, regardless of whether you think it necessary or not, I am going to talk to you about the Ten Ox Herding Pictures and what I interpret them to mean.
“There is a second reason. Now and then I encounter people in both Tokyo and Kansai who have been studying with me for many years but who, I believe, could do with a little more self-reflection. This talk is for them.”
That is what I said in Tokyo and the same holds true for you here today. I’m speaking from experience. During my inquiry into the truth about the human condition, I once went through a slump. It was in the early years of Shōwa [1926–1989], five or six years after I embarked on this work.
By a slump, I mean things were going so well that I got comfortable; I felt like I had learned everything there was to learn about life and began to slack off in my practice. The passion went out of my life and laziness set in.
Then—I’ll never forget it. It was the year before the Shōwa coronation, so it was 1928. Hasegawa Naozō, president of the Japan Paint Corporation at the time, showed me his photographs of a set of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures hanging in the Kyoto University library. “Sensei, look at these,” he said. “Aren’t they wonderful?”
The pictures he showed me are the same as the ones I will be showing you today, except that mine are copies made for me by Nojiri-san, the Osaka artist. In any event, the moment Hasegawa-san showed them to me, it was like receiving a wake-up call.
“Ah! Seems I have been living under a cloud of conceit, thinking that I know all there is to know.” It was like being hit over the head. “I need to reapply myself. I’ve been slacking off,” I thought.
Thereafter, I resumed my shugyō with new enthusiasm and a new sense of humility—it was just as if I were back in the first grade again. And consequently, as you can see, I am still in one piece today. Not just in one piece but fit to kill: I’m so fit I surprise even myself. I have lived a long and full life, and I have the satisfaction and privilege to spend my time talking to people like yourselves about the sanctity of being alive.
Now, there are those among you who have been attending my talks for years—new people, this doesn’t apply to you—but who are getting lazy. That is why I want to bring the Ten Ox Herding Pictures to your attention.
Usually this function is served by Zen priests. Today we have Hamada-san, who is a Zen priest, here with us; perhaps I should step aside and let him do the talking. He could even put on his robes and get out his prayer beads; that would probably make the event more memorable. The only problem is, when priests talk about Zen, they have a way of making it too difficult to understand. Mind you, I’m not talking about Hamada-san. I’m just saying that, in general, sermons delivered by Zen priests tend to contain unfamiliar words and terms and to tax ordinary comprehension.
Years before most of you were born, I had the opportunity to attend some sermons delivered by Arai Sekizen [famous Sōdō Zen sect abbot]. His explanations were so easy to follow! He reminded me of the rakugo [traditional storytelling] comedian Enchō who was popular at the time. Later, when I mentioned this to Enchō, he told me, “I used to attend the Buddhist sermons of Morita Goyū and Arai Sekizen all the time. Maybe subconsciously I began to imitate them when I took up rakugo.”
But times have changed, and the Zen priests of today have a way of saying things nobody understands—there’s even no way of knowing whether they themselves understand what they are saying. And consequently, if there are those among you who have had the Ten Ox Herding Pictures explained to you by a Zen priest, you will probably be thinking, “This is going to be a long afternoon.” If you are one of those people, I ask you to please give me a chance. These pictures are meant to be accessible to everyone—that was the purpose of their invention in the first place.
On the other hand, what each of you needs to do as you listen is to examine your own interior and then to determine which of the ten pictures best describes your own stage of development.
Even though it probably goes without saying, it is important to be clear that the ox we are talking about here is not an ox with four legs and a set of horns. The ox here is a metaphor for what Zen calls the “innate luminosity of mind” (本然の自性、honzen-no-jisyō). Or in other words, the Buddha nature. Shakyamuni used the more obscure term “dharma kaya” (清浄法身、shōjō-hōshin). This is what the ox, as a metaphor, is meant to invoke.
But none of those terms probably mean much to you, so listen up. To explain it in shin-shin tōitsu method terms, what we are talking about here is the essence of the true self. Does that make better sense?
Our true identity as human beings—this is the essence of the true self. Most people, especially given the busyness of these modern times, are oblivious to their true nature; they don’t know who they are. Long ago, this teaching was conceived to wake people up to their one true identity and to arouse within them the essential spiritual light of self-knowing. Within Zen, the pictures are meant to stimulate one’s daily practice of meditation.
To expand a little, in our normal daily lives we tend to be preoccupied with the wants and needs of our small selves, the wants and needs of the identities we associate with our physical bodies. When we are preoccupied with the wants and needs of physical being, we lose sight of who we really are. This false impression of who we are is what I call the small self. The purpose of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures is to extend a helping hand to those who are lost in the wants and concerns of their small selves—to help them discover value and happiness by waking up to their true nature.
Of course, I didn’t invent these pictures. But nevertheless, as I understand it, that is their purpose. So, this is not just a teaching of Zen that Zen priests are charged with preserving. It is a sacred heirloom of value to all of humanity.
These pictures first came into existence some eight hundred years ago—that is, some twelve hundred years after the birth of Shakyamuni. They were conceived in what is now Liangshan, in China, by Kakuan Shion [Chinese: Kuòān Shiyuān]. Counting from Gigen Zenji [Chinese: Linji Yixuan], Kakuan was the twelfth or thirteenth patriarch of the Rinzai sect. I’m speaking from memory, so some of my details may be a little off.
As a teacher of the path of the Buddha, Kakuan Zenji [Zenji: Zen master] sought a way to show people—even people who couldn’t read or write—their Buddha nature. What he came up with was these ten paintings.
So much for the background; now let’s look at the pictures themselves, one by one.
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