From Roadmaps for Spiritual Paths By Andrew Rooke
Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical
The Ten Ox-Herding pictures, was devised by a Chinese Ch'an Buddhist
master in the 12th century and has been particularly treasured by the Zen
Buddhists of Japan. They have their equivalent in the elephant-training
pictures of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the horse-training pictures of
Taoism. In a series of ten simple pictures this map guides our steps from
the moments we become aware that there is such a thing as the higher life
through the responsibilities of those who have found it. Let's look
briefly at each picture and maybe they will help guide our footsteps along
our spiritual path.
1) The Search for the Bull:
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in
search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon interpenetrating paths of distant
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
Everyone is searching in their own way for their true nature among the
many distractions and entanglements of the world. In our quest, we think
that it is far away, in the mountains and streams of the future, and we
fail to see that the answer is close at hand amidst our own duties
and routines. The "bull" never has been lost, it is part of us but we
don't see it there, a bit like the glasses on our nose! This is a stage we
are all painfully familiar with in our search for ourselves amidst the
highways and byways of our own nature and the often confusing babble of
religious and philosophical organizations.
2) Discovering the Footprints:
Along the riverbank, under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in the remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.
Inevitably and eventually we discover the traces or footprints of our
true nature or of how the universe may actually be in itself. These
footprints cannot be hidden since they are everywhere in our lives; it is
just up to us to be aware and sensitive to their existence. It may be an
event in our personal lives, a book, a friend, a gathering of like minds,
but eventually we become aware both that there is such a teaching about
reality and that there is such an aspect of ourselves.
3) Perceiving the Bull:
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
We pass from seeing the signs of truth to direct awareness of a truth
really meaningful to us. We are overwhelmed by its beauty and power to
move us, and nothing will prevent us from pursuing this knowledge from now
on! This may be a special feeling when we read a book or some special
moment of insight in our daily life. We move from a secondhand experience
to direct perception and in doing so move, be it ever so slightly, from
duality towards the Unity of all things.
4) Catching the Bull:
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
Once we know that there is such a thing as a greater awareness, life
becomes difficult and we enter into a battle to tame the bull. Difficult
situations arise from within ourselves, and we perceive ordinary
situations in a different way which makes it hard for us to apply old ways
of dealing with them. The "bull" seems insubordinate, used to his old
ways, searching for new satisfactions while always remaining unsatisfied.
This is the condition of many people on the spiritual path. We fail to see
that the bull is actually part of ourselves, and are under the illusion
that we can whip him into obedience.
5) Taming the Bull:
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
As long as we are under the illusion that our inner nature (and that of
others) is separate from our outer nature, the battle will continue. In
fact the two are aspects of ourselves, both necessary in their own way. We
should look for the best in ourselves and others, and thus gradually
identify with the inner self. The "bull" is naturally satisfied and gentle
and the "whip" and the "rope" are eventually not necessary. At first we
need strong discipline to separate the real and unreal in our search for
truth; later such an appreciation of immediate reality becomes
6) Riding the Bull Home:
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless
Whoever hears this melody will join me.
Riding the ox indicates assimilating one's outer self with the inner
nature. Playing the flute indicates following the inner voice or music of
the intuition in a similar way as Krishna is often pictured holding a
flute. Flute and hands join in harmony with the universal symphony of
infinity as we return to our spiritual home, outer and inner self united
in this journey. The radiant presence of such an enlightened person in the
world may eventually inspire millions who are struggling on the road
behind; or as Buddhist poets would say, flowers come naturally into bloom
as such a sage walks in the garden.
7) The Bull Transcended:
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
The sage sits peacefully meditating in the moonlight of early morning,
near his simple thatched dwelling with the formerly fearsome ox nowhere in
sight — the sage is at last home! This picture emphasizes that all has
been one since the beginning, not two. The "ox" was not separate from
ourselves but rather the means of realizing Oneness as the sage is doing,
sitting and meditating in the picture. The disappearance of obscuring
clouds in the picture does not create the moon, but rather reveals its
existence to us. As the Buddha taught: Buddha created nothing; rather he
simply discovered aspects of the truth about how the universe works.
8) Both Bull and Self Transcended:
Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.
What is this! There is nothing here, no bull, no person, no situation —
nothing or rather No Thing. Having reached home and bathed in the true
reality without the obscuring clouds, we begin to realize that nothing is
independent or permanent. All things are an integral part of the whole and
therefore cannot be pictured separately as we had done before with the
bull and the man. In this state of direct understanding, there is no need
for complicated philosophies or religious dogma. All such are swept away
as footprints in the sand by waves on a beach. Instead, here we find the
footprints of those brave souls who preceded us in the direct apprehension
9) Reaching the Source:
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
A tranquil scene, such as one might see lying on a river bank watching
the stream flow in midsummer. The willow dips lazily towards the water,
with insects darting above the surface and a bird winging its way through
our meditations. As we sit amidst this beauty, the thought occurs to us
that immediate reality is the source of everything — the beginning and the
end of every spiritual journey. The circumstances of living an enlightened
or ignorant life are how we handle the reality of the Now. In this way we
can awake to the Source within us; then we see that we need not actively
be "seeking" or "gaining" — the treasure house is within.
10) In the World:
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
Our seeker, who suspected the presence of the Bull in the first
picture, now returns to the world an illuminated spiritual teacher helping
other questing individuals at the beginning of their search. Having
touched reality as it is, he realizes that he is inseparable from the
whole and returns to fulfill his duties to those who have the same
potential but are not yet there. The sage seeks no ego fulfillment,
special powers, or worldly reward of any kind but rather to live the
bodhisattva ideal of service to others by providing guide-posts along the
pathways of ignorance to light.
We can all identify with one or another of the Ox-Herding pictures, and
seek information and direction from those which depict stages ahead of us
on the spiritual path. We can find solace in the fact that the final
picture shows that the purpose of the journey is not to retreat from this
world of suffering for so many. Enlightened individuals who have trodden
this path before us have not abandoned us to the byways of ignorance.
Their and our path leads eventually back to the world and the never-ending
task of lifting a little of the load of suffering from humanity's