二 Tracking the Ox
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, picture two. The second picture is called “Tracking the Ox” [literally, “Sighting Tracks”].
After trekking from deep mountain valley to valley, it seems the young ox herder has finally discovered a trace: he has come across fresh hoof prints in the dirt. The verse that accompanies the picture goes as follows.
At last, intense searching in the mountains is rewarded. The sight of the ox’s tracks—what delight!
Oh, what joy. But if joy, on the one hand, then uncertainty and anxiety on the other; for what will he do when he finds the ox? Will he be able to catch it? Or will it just run away? Even so, with no time to lose, he presses on.
Zen tells us that Buddhism’s founder, Shakyamuni, left behind his sutras and sayings: whether they really originated with the Buddha, nobody knows, but the more likely explanation is that they originated with his students, that they were inspired by their master’s teachings and wanted to be sure that the teachings were passed on. Something like when you read a book and think, “Oh, that was a good book.” Or you encounter a teaching and think, “What an inspiration!”
To put this in the context of the shin-shin tōitsu method, before you first came to hear me speak you may have seen one of my books, or you may have heard about me from one of your friends. You may have thought, “Somebody’s talking about those sorts of things!” Or the friend may have given you one of my books to read, and you may have read it and thought, “That was a good book!” Events such as these are like the ox herder’s discovery of the ox’s tracks.
The Buddha’s sutras and sayings are likened to the ox’s tracks because they, in and of themselves, are not the teachings: they are collections of words and characters [letters], and words and characters are not the things they describe. Words and characters are merely instruments meant to direct our attention toward a reality. In Buddhism, the sutras and sayings are what is referred to as “the finger pointing at the moon.” The finger is not the moon. All the finger does is say, “Hey, look at that!”
To put this into more modern terms, human ideas and concepts are always based on some precedent. Well, the basis for the ideas and concepts that make up Buddhism are the Buddha’s sutras and sayings.
“Always make knowledge your own through contemplation.” This is a central instruction of Zen. Of all the schools of Buddhism, Zen is the most realistic and practical; it’s a little different from other schools that simply teach concepts and leave you to wonder what those concepts mean.
When Hōnen [法然、founder of the Pure Land School (浄土宗、Jōdo-shū)] said that all one needed to do in order to achieve salvation was to invoke the Buddha by name (念仏、nenbutsu), he was speaking in an age when most people didn’t know how to think rationally; they had yet to develop the capacity. From our perspective, they appear to have been less-than human. People back then were less developed intellectually than modern-day kindergarteners. So, to put them at ease, all Hōnen had to say was, “All you need to do to achieve nirvana and ascend to paradise [極楽浄土、gokuraku-jōdo] is to recite the name of the Amida Buddha. Nammu-amida-butsu … nammandabutsu, nammandabutsu.” They were so much easier to please than people today.
When people outgrew such kinds of simplistic injunctions, Zen came along. Telling people they can achieve peace of mind by grabbing for clouds was hardly going to satisfy them for long; what they needed was an instruction that advocated confronting reality, that advocated doing the work that was needed to clear the mind of the impurities that kept it from experiencing peace. In other words, the birth of the jiriki (自力; self-driven, self-generated force) schools, or Zen. The nenbutsu (chanting the Buddha’s name) belongs to the tariki (他力; driven by other, force generated by other) schools.
So, there are some similarities between Zen and my teachings, don’t you think? The purpose of Zen practice has been described as “to learn from reality.” Zen priests would say, “Concepts and theories are not enough. Theory is not the same as reality, is it? Theory is just a conceptual understanding of reality, isn’t it? The sutras and the sayings are like a reflected image in a mirror, aren’t they?” This is what Zen would say. Of course, the image of a man in a mirror is dependent upon the man it reflects; but it’s still just an image—not a real man. What you need to apprehend is the reality, not the image. This is what Zen is saying.
It reminds me of a little song sung by geisha: “If you want to hear someone’s voice, use the telephone. If you want to see his face, look at a picture. But even in this modern world of conveniences, there are still things you can only do in person.” Don’t laugh; it’s the truth.
That’s why it’s not enough just to read the sutras or the sayings. It’s not enough to read a book or listen to a recording. Or to go to a lecture and hear an explanation. Anyone who thinks they understand just because they have read something or heard something is a sorry case.
The thing is, some people are satisfied with that kind of shugyō. Even in the Tempūkai, there are people like that; but, in Zen, Dōgen Zenji made a point of calling this out as folly.
Nevertheless, the sutras and the sayings serve a purpose. They are a means to an end, where the end in question is the reality being talked about. Unless you have a handle to grasp onto, you’ll never lift yourself up. That’s what this picture, “Tracking the Ox,” is saying. The sighting of the ox’s hoof prints is like the discovery of the sutras and sayings. It’s a necessary second stage in the seeker’s journey.
But the picture is also saying, that alone is not enough, because the hoof prints are not the ox. The ox herder still has work to do to find the ox; he must follow the tracks, wherever they may lead. The picture is saying that perseverance is still needed to reach the goal.
In the context of the shin-shin tōitsu method, I always say you need to bring new people with you to my talks. This is cause and effect: when you share your happiness with others, it becomes more than just personal happiness; it also becomes an act of merit (功徳、kudoku).
I’ll expand a little: When you perform an act of merit, it’s you who reaps the rewards. Don’t think you are being selfless and doing something for the sake of others; you are doing it for yourself. So, when I say, “Practice acts of merit,” I mean, tell others, “Here are the tracks.” If you point out the tracks to enough people, then surely someone among those people will follow them; they will join you in the search for the ox. Just that is enough of a reward, isn’t it?
In any event, if you really want to discover a solution to the hardships of living, you need to look at things from more than one perspective. To put it simply, look at things from both the inside and the outside. In academic terms, that might mean to look at things both scientifically and philosophically. If you only think philosophically, you miss out on scientific understanding. And vice versa, if you only think scientifically, you miss out on philosophical understanding. So, you need to come at things from both these angles—that is, if you really want to understand the reality of what you are looking at.
That’s why you should never be satisfied with the discovery of the tracks. But there are people like that, aren’t there? They attend my lectures once or twice and then decide to study on their own. “I know that already because I read a book about it.” Those kind of people.