六 Riding the Ox Home
This is the continuation of a lecture by Nakamura Tempū on the meaning of the “Ten Ox Herding Pictures” of Zen Buddhism. To go to the beginning of the lecture, click here.
So, next, picture six is called “Riding the Ox Home.”
You’ve probably seen variations of this picture before, as it’s a common motif [in Far Eastern art]. What it is showing is, the same ox that was once so wild and unruly has become—through the ox herder’s persistent minding and discipline—so docile and tame that its master can now seat himself comfortably on its back. In the picture, the young ox herder sits atop the ox, carefree and playing his flute, while the ox carries him home.
The accompanying verse goes as follows.
Riding atop the ox that is the mind, the snow-laden mountain path is now but a memory.
In terms of the shin-shin tōitsu method, what this means is that, while you go about your normal daily life, you discover yourself elevated onto a plateau of equanimity where mind and body function—naturally and without any effort or extra vigilance on your part—as a single unit. Among the people here today, there are those of you who are at this stage, aren’t there? I’d like to be able to include all of you, but for most of you, as a matter of fact, it’s just not the case.
Buddhist monks, in their sermons, often say that all of us, no matter who we are, are born into circumstances of extraordinary wealth, just as if we were the sons [and daughters] of millionaires; that happiness and dominion over all of creation are our birthright; but that, through the pitifully narrow and confused states of our minds, we have cast ourselves out of that happy household and chosen to become beggars, always worrying about where we’ll find our next meal. This is what Buddhism calls “homelessness in the universe of a billion worlds” (三界無宿、sangai-mushuku).
For most of our lives, we have been living a life of suffering, impervious to the benevolence of creation. We have been caught in the duality of good and bad, right and wrong, straight and crooked—that is, we have been living a life in which we are blown about aimlessly like straw dust, prey to the popular discourse as to what constitutes right and wrong and good and evil. We have continuously sought fame, fortune, that woman, or that delicacy. We have been entrapped in the agony and perplexity of a mountain called desire.
The shin-shin tōitsu method teaches that, as a quality inherent to the life force that animates us, we are endowed with freedom and creativity; we are free to create our own health and reform your own lives. Given that this is so, so long as you are aware of this innate power, you can—anyone can—choose to live a life of happiness, health, and good fortune. But if you are not aware of it, then you easily fall prey to sickness and worries. The life that was originally conceived to be one of happiness becomes one of unhappiness through your own doing.
That is to say, your way of living becomes distantly divorced from the natural state of human dignity. You have heard me say this before. Just think back to what your life was like before you discovered my teachings. But now, after attending my lectures, you should be riding the bull like the boy in the picture; you should have uncovered the innate luminosity of your mind through the practice of uniting mind and body. You should be steadfastly taming the bull’s wilder instincts by cleansing your mind of extraneous thoughts and delusions. You should be glittering on the outside from luminosity on the inside and living a life overflowing with joy.
Happiness means not to be sick, not to be destitute. You may recognize those conditions in others, but you need to declare yourself free of them. You have no use for them; you are competent in your ability to enact and radiate your own innate power. That is the meaning of “Riding the Ox Home.”
So, if you aren’t living like this, you’re not there yet; you’re not riding the ox home. You’re still tugging and pulling on the ox, doing what you can to tame it, and should you let down your guard, it will run away. Hits home for most of you, I think.
The clear majority of people think that happiness is elusive, that it’s something that always slips easily out of one’s grasp; but that’s just not so. If you think that, it’s only because, when you catch a bit of happiness, you fail to make it permanent, to make it your own.
For example, if you think about it, the fact you are part of the Tempūkai is real cause for happiness. Or at least, I think so. I am genuinely happy. Honest and sincere practice of the shin-shin tōitsu method inevitably leads to the unexpected discovery of peaceful tranquility (安心立命、anshin-ritsumei).
In Buddhism, this is called the great state of nothingness (一大無心境、ichidai mushinkyō; the single great space of no mind). Just like in this picture, that wild and unruly ox has become as tame and docile as a sitting cushion, even to the extent that you, without cares, can sit on its back and play your flute; you and the ox have become one, and together you are headed for home.
It’s my personal belief—more like an article of faith based on my experience—that practice of the shin-shin tōitsu method is the quickest and surest path to such a state. Offer me any amount of money, but I won’t change my mind; I have no interest or desire to pursue any other path.
I’ll be a little more specific: Just what is the prize that is represented in this picture as the ability to ride the ox? It’s a prize we’re all after. It’s truth. Truth is what we’re all after, what we all want. We want to know the truth and to be empowered to enact it with our whole bodies and whole minds.
Furthermore, by “going home,” what is meant is a return to that spacious plateau of being where mind and circumstances are all figments of one-and-the-same cloth.
If your mental response to this is, “That’s not me. I don’t qualify, by any measure; I have so far yet to go,” then stop! What you need to be thinking is, simply, “That’s where I want to be.” It’s all up to you to get there, so you should set your intentions accordingly.
Am I asking too much? I don’t think so. I’d much prefer to think that all of you are already well on your ways to inhabiting that plateau. But it’s those of you who are thinking, “Not me; I still have so very far to go” who need to wake up. You need to wake up to who you are and to claim that plateau as your own. Because it’s the ideal home, the rightful human domicile.
The Kegon master Myōe (明恵上人、1173–1232; abbot of Kōzan-ji (高山寺) in Kyoto) of Toga-no-o (栂尾) says, in his sermon on the principles of spiritual peace, “Take on the likeness.”
As the story goes, one of his parishioners came to him and said, “I have attended your sermons many times, and after following your instructions, I feel that I have successfully freed my mind from most of its impurities. However, there is still one thing that troubles me. When I look honestly within, I am haunted by the question of what will happen when I die. What will become of me? What will become of my household and my business once I leave them behind? When my mind is filled with these questions, I can claim no sense of spiritual peace.
“I’m getting on in years, and death, the inevitable, is near. But I don’t want to go to my death as an unrealized being, so please guide me. Please show me the way to satori.”
To which the master Myōe replied, “Yours is an easy request, so I shall be happy to comply. But the question you ask is among the most important of human existence. So, before I instruct you, go purify yourself in mind and body. After you have purified the six senses, I shall give you the guidance you seek. The expedient way to purify mind and body is to fast for seven days and seven nights: abstain from tea and salt for seven days and nights.”
Back then, people believed that abstinence from tea and salt would purify the six senses. So, after abstaining from tea and salt for seven days and seven nights, the parishioner returned to the temple eager to receive instruction as to how to attain spiritual peace.
“Come into the main hall,” Master Myōe said. “I shall give you the guidance you desire.”
Myōe donned his formal robes, robes that distinguished him as an enlightened master, and seated himself on the dais in the main hall of the temple and said, “Hear what I have to say.”
The parishioner bowed low in supplication.
“There is nothing difficult as concerns the principle of spiritual peace. One instruction is all that is needed. So, open your ears and listen with your full attention. To attain spiritual peace, just take on its likeness. Just live as if you are at peace.”
The parishioner was dumbfounded. Here he was expecting the revelation of some esoteric secret but instead was being told just to pretend, to act as if he was at peace.
The parishioner, however, was also no fool. He reflected. “Here I call myself a follower of the way of the Buddha, but I don’t act like a follower of that way.”
So maybe you are thinking, “I’ve been a student of Tempū’s teachings for going on ten years now. I don’t consider myself a fool. And yet, even though I understand what he is saying, I can’t put it into practice. Is it because only a fool can do it? Do I need to become a fool?” If you are thinking such thoughts, stop. Put your hand on your heart. Then take it from Master Myōe; the answer is simple. Just take on the likeness of mind-body unification. You have learned the shin-shin tōitsu method, so no enact it. If you enact it, you will become it. There’s nothing the least bit difficult about what I am instructing.
After all, even I can do it. Even someone who was once as spoiled and self-centered as I was.
I was a child of privilege. Raised within the Daimyō’s inner circle, I was a brat, as spoiled as anyone could be. You people have no experience of what it was like in feudal times, but back then, if you were a Daimyō, you had no need for justice or morals or even reason. If you wanted something, you just took it. If you set your sights on a woman, you took her—regardless of whose wife she might be.
I was only a child during those times, so no matter how precocious I was, I never went quite that far. But I came close. I did some awful things. If any of you had known me back then, you wouldn’t be sitting here today: “How could such an evil person,” you would think, “have anything of value to say?”
But, in fact, somehow, I have managed to outlive my past sins and to play the role of mentor. Tōyama Mitsuru-sensei played a big part in my reformation. He was the first person to ever look at me and say, “He’ll turn out okay.”
Thinking back on this now, he probably only said it because he knew that children, especially a problem child, don’t like to be criticized. He probably just said it to gain my confidence. But even when I began lecturing, it was Tōyama-sensei who first stuck up for me. He’d introduce me by saying something like, “Tempū here, before he attained satori, well, he was quite the misfit. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a criminal, but he certainly was a bad person.” Of course, bad person and criminal mean the same thing; what he meant was, I had been no better than a criminal.
“So, now that you know that, listen to what he has to say. He knows the difference between sweet and sour. He’s thirty years younger than I am [in actuality, twenty-one years], but when I hear him speak—and even though he’s still a child to me—he says much that I admire.”
Ōoka Echizen (大岡越前、1677–1752; a shogunate magistrate and subject of popular legend)[i]—now I’m really digressing—was—you know the story, he was called in from the countryside by the shogun to clean up the capitol. At the time, Edo was infested with thieves. Theft was so pervasive the prior magistrate had been overwhelmed and failed completely to curtail it. But the Shogun, Yoshimune, was a wise ruler. He called on Ōoka to do something.
After humbly accepting this commission, Ōoka Echizen proceeded to call in the boss of the largest gang of thieves and to put him in charge of the problem. People were stunned; “Putting a thief in charge is no way to stop thievery,” they all said. But, in fact, from the moment this man came on board, the incidence of theft in the capitol plummeted.
So, it takes one to know one; one who knows is the most qualified to lead. If I was without blemish, if I shone like a diamond—if I didn’t shit and fart like the rest of you—you wouldn’t have any reason to listen to what I have to say. Luckily, however, I’m just as human as you are. It’s because I’m imperfect that you trust me and follow my instructions. That might sound like a contradiction, but it’s not.
In any event, “Just take on the likeness.” This is a truly wonderful saying. Stop acting in ways that are not in the likeness of what it is you wish to be.
Maybe you sometimes act like an animal. This was certainly true in my case. But not anymore; I never act in a way that is less-than-human. Maybe it’s bravery or maybe it’s indifference, but you people act, sometimes, like dogs, sometimes, like cats, sometimes, like tanuki or badgers or foxes; am I not right? Even though you look at me so innocently.
It’s part of the human condition to never be satisfied with the present. This is a natural endowment, and it’s also a precious gift; don’t mistake this gift for something bad. Because the mind is never satisfied with the present, we continually seek greater awakening, greater understanding. It’s only when we seek satisfaction in the wrong places that this natural tendency becomes a problem. When that happens, you just need to redirect it; once you do that, it becomes a positive force for evolutionary development.
That said, you still need to be careful. No matter how keen you are to develop—let’s say you take the profound power of ideals (理想の摩訶力、risō-no-makaryoku) that I spoke about on day three, and you decide to make this your guiding principle; you say to yourself, “What I need to do is to constantly conjure perfection, to conjure in my mind the loftiest of ideals.” Well, if your practice ends there, then it’s a waste of time. Take whatever you are doing right now in the present moment: if you think, simplistically, that doing it in the interest of empty idealism will bring you even one step closer to realizing those ideals, you are badly mistaken. Your dreams will turn out to be no more than dreams.
To put this into more concrete terms, if you really want to realize your ideals—are you with me? —you need to begin with a clear understanding of where you are now and then pay attention to what you need to do to make your life better. Just thinking, I’d like to become this or that—that’s not enough.
It’s like I always say. When you are sick, instead of wishing to become well, just assume that you are already well. Even among longtime members, there are those who don’t get this. When I tell them, “Don’t think about what ails you,” they ask, “If I don’t think about it, will I get better?”
“Fool. When you aren’t thinking about it, you’re already better, aren’t you? Where have you been all these years? Haven’t you been listening?” This is what I tell them.
Unless you understand this, you’ll never develop or evolve. You may hang out your ideals to flutter in the wind, but unless you come to terms with reality and take the practical steps that reality requires, those ideals will eventually go up in smoke. You’ll just watch them burn. So, as I just explained, you need to maintain a firm grip on current reality, a grip that never lets go, if you want to realize your ideals. And, at the same time, you need to be convinced that your ideals are possible and attainable.
Simply put, if you want to achieve something, assume that you have already achieved it. Achieve it in your mind. This way you will be exercising and living up to your human potential. Only humans create their lives through thought; dogs don’t do it.
That’s why the worst thing you can think is, “I can’t do it.” Such a thought is not in keeping with what it means to be a shin-shin tōitsu practitioner. Saying “I can’t” is equivalent to saying, “That possibility is non-existent, I don’t have it in me.” Isn’t this so?
Sounds like something you would be told in kindergarten, but even so, most people—you may be among them, so take note—go about their lives in a state of confusion, without equanimity. They take it for granted that the acquisition of things and the pursuit of wealth is what life is all about.
Even as I am speaking, there are those of you who are thinking, “It’s already past noon. Are we going to go to one o’clock again today? I’m looking forward to lunch.”
If you don’t have those thoughts, you’re happy. You know how to enjoy the present. If I didn’t enjoy the present, why would I continue doing what I do—saying the same things over and over, day after day? Most people wouldn’t put up with it for long. The difference is, what I live for is right now, right now, right now. That way, every moment is pleasurable. I get to look at your faces and say to myself, “Oh, this person, that person, and that person—they’re following my instructions to the letter.”
Just hold yourselves up to the example set by most of the people you encounter in your everyday lives: how much more confused and misdirected are they than you? Always grumbling and complaining—like a washing machine going ‘round and ‘round. A muddled mind is always caught up in itself in this way. In comparison, you people know that grumbling and complaining serves no purpose. You know how to live with a pure and unadulterated heart. You know how to live. Think about it. This is what it means to ride the ox home.
[i] In March 1970, just fifteen months after Tempū’s death, the story of Ōoka Echizen was fictionalized and made into a television drama. The program completed fifteen seasons and aired for twenty-nine years.