attributed to Zen Master Kakuan Shien
China, 12th Century
“Taming the Wild Ox” (popularly known as “The 10 Bulls of Zen” and “The 10 Ox-Herding Pictures”) is a series of 10 illustrations and accompanying short verses used in the Zen tradition to illustrate the stages of a practitioner’s progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment, and subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom. The numbered verse translation below is credited to Philip Kapleau.
An alternative interpretation of the drawings is as representation of the steps or stages of the “pilgrim’s progress” leading to spiritual illumination. You as an enterprising spirit can utilize the images to assess your progress or discover your current stage of your unique pilgrim’s progress. The aqua-colored commentary below is credited to Alfonso Carrasco of Chile, translated from the Spanish by M. Gallardo.
An equally viable symbolic alternative is the 10 pictures corresponding to the 10 Sephirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Sephirot are variously interpreted as, for example, 10 Divine attributes, or 10 “waystations” in the process of unfolding Creation. The Hebrew and English terms for the Sephirot are provided below in gray color along with the corresponding 33 Gateway Lane nomenclature and definitions.
Two more legitimate interpretations include the representation of “The Hero’s Journey”, and fundamental symbolism of Carl Jung’s process of individuation.
Whatever interpretation you prefer, there are two points common to all the various interpretations:
1. The ox represents the human ego.
2. Enlightenment does not entail an absence of ego, it entails the mastery of ego.
And feel free to cast aside all interpretations and symbolism! For standing on their own merit, in and of themselves, the 10 images can simply be appreciated and enjoyed as enchanting and delightful works of art. Just like countless other souls have done for over 800 years.
1. SEEKING THE OX
Desolate through forests and fearful in jungles,
he is seeking an Ox which he does not find.
Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,
in deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.
Bone-tired, heart-weary , he carries on his search
for this something which he yet cannot find.
At evening he hears cicadas chirping in the trees.
The Search for the Bull: This stage represents man when he still does not know his true nature, but one way or another, has already started his search. He wishes to find it, though he does not even know what it is, nor is he sure of recognizing it when he finds it. Sometimes he experiments with the search as an escape from his present circumstances which in general are not pleasant. Life as it is, is a heavy load and — he thinks — surely there must be a better way of living. Most of those who have started the “search” are at this stage.
KETER | Crown
|1||INTENTIONALITY||Purpose or attitude toward the effect of one’s actions or conduct. Done with intention or on purpose; intended; of or pertaining to intention or purpose. Purpose implies having a goal or determination to achieve something.|
2. FINDING THE FOOTPRINTS
Innumerable footprints has he seen
in the forest and along the water’s edge.
Over yonder does he see the trampled grass?
Even the deepest gorges of the topmost mountains
can’t hide this Ox’s nose which reaches right to heaven.
Finding the Path: At this stage, the searcher finds indications, clues in one or more spiritual traditions, he is attracted by books of wisdom, he attends conferences on the subject, he meets masters and notices that there are others who have followed the same path, he is not the first person to have noticed that there is something subtle to attain. This stage, generally, starts with yoga practice, meditation or other disciplines. Through these he experiences sensations related to the spirit. In the first image he searches all over, without a specific order, whereas in the second image his search is more focused and better oriented.
CHOKHMAH | Wisdom
|2||POTENTIAL||Possible, as opposed to actual. Capable of being or becoming.|
3. FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE OX
A nightingale warbles on a twig,
the sun shines on undulating willows.
There stands the Ox, where could he hide?
That splendid head, those stately horns,
what artist could portray them?
The First Glimpse: This would be considered the first spiritual experience, the student gets to see his true self and feel the Kundalini energy that awakens within him. It is equivalent to the first contact with the master that initiates him or transmits him his energy. Kundalini energy is both physical and spiritual in nature. The searcher’s objective will be to elevate this energy towards his consciousness instead of repressing or eliminating the animal within. This first insight can also originate from religious experiences in the form of celestial visions. As a summary, the first sight is any kind of vision or unusual experience that stimulates the individual to follow the path towards that which is transcendental.
BINAH | Understanding
|3||STEWARDSHIP||One who administers anything as the agent of another or others.|
4. CATCHING THE OX
He must tightly grasp the rope and not let it go,
for the Ox still has unhealthy tendencics.
Now he charges up to the highlands,
now he loiters in a misty ravine.
Capturing the Bull: He has caught the animal but it is still stubborn and does not follow him. He has finally caught it but it is obstinate and uncontrolled. Its energy and decision are relentless, at times it runs toward the hills, at other times it stays unmovable in deep impenetrable valleys. It symbolizes our struggle with our basic nature, something that can last a whole lifetime. At this stage a person must analyze if he is advancing and attaining a clearer understanding or he is simply stuck and protecting himself behind certain doctrines or ideas related to spiritual practice.
CHESED | Kindness
|4||LEADERSHIP||The position or function of a leader. Ability to lead. An act or instance of leading, guidance, direction. To go before or with to show the way; conduct or escort. To guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc. To command or direct. To take the directing or principal part.|
5. TAMING THE OX
He must hold the nose-rope tight and not allow the Ox to roam,
lest off to muddy haunts it should stray.
Properly tended, it becomes clean and gentle.
Untethered, it willingly follows its master.
Taming the Bull: This represents the control of our physical or animal nature, this is attained by knowing it; in other words, listening and dialoging with it. He is now directing the bull with the reins and controls it to the extent that the bull lets himself be guided. Little by little the man becomes the master. What he does at this stage is unite his consciousness with the animal nature (basic nature). For example, a professional animal trainer knows that using force you do not tame the animal. Only by harmonizing his consciousness with the animal conscience can he attain that. This is why many of the effective spiritual development formulas do not try to conquer, dominate, destroy, or eliminate the ego. Rather they teach you to live in harmony with it. Actually, it is the ego or the mind itself, that promotes the search of one’s Self and it must go through all the stages. Thus to talk about eliminating it is absurd.
GEVURAH | Severity
|5||MANAGEMENT||The act or manner of managing, handling, direction, or control. A person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it.|
6. RIDING THE OX HOME
Riding free as air he buoyantly comes home
through evening mists in wide straw-hat and cape.
Wherever he may go he creates a fresh breeze,
while in his heart profound tranquility prevails.
This Ox requires not a blade of grass.
Riding the Bull Home: In the Hindu culture, Gods and Goddesses are represented riding on animals as their vehicle. The animal symbolizes the inferior nature that the man dominates and with which he has a good relationship. One must feed and take care of the biological part of our being, without abusing nor relaxing too much. This way the physical vital force becomes an ally. In the drawing we can see how he is riding the bull without reins, the bull knows where to go and that is where it goes without being directed. He is playing the flute placidly on the back of the bull. The struggle is over, he has attained the state of enlightenment.
TIFERET | Beauty
|6||INITIATIVE||An introductory act or step; leading action. Readiness and ability in initiating action; enterprise. Of or pertaining to initiation; serving to initiate.|
7. OX FORGOTTEN, SELF ALONE
Only on the Ox was he able to come Home,
But lo, the Ox is now vanished, and alone and serene sits the man.
The red sun rides high in the sky as he dreams on placidly.
Yonder beneath the thatched roof
his idle whip and idle rope are lying.
The Transcended Bull: He is alone and happy, sitting by his house, the bull is no longer visible. He has become one with the Being. Instead of the former efforts, a state of peace and happiness reigns.
Transcendence is a recurring or temporal experience of unity, beyond dualities. It is an exceptional state of conscience. When we live in a dual world, we always experience the opposites: inside – out, happiness – sadness, success – failure, etc. Duality starts with birth and ends with death. Actually, we live not only in duality, but rather multiplicity. Whereas transcendence implies a unity experience, not duality, not multiplicity, that shows us our true nature.
NETZACH | Victory
|7||TEAMWORK||Cooperative or coordinated effort on the part of a group of persons acting together as a team or in the interest of a common cause. Work done with a team.|
8. BOTH OX AND SELF FORGOTTEN
Whip, rope, Ox and man alike belong to Emptiness.
So vast and infinite the azure sky
that no concept of any sort can reach it.
Over a blazing fire a snowflake cannot survive.
When this state of mind is realized
comes at last comprehension
of the spirit of the ancient Patriarchs.
The Bull and Self Transcended: All has fused itself into nothingness. We can only observe a circle, with nothing inside, which means all opposites have disappeared. At this stage he cannot even say “I am illuminated” or “I am not illuminated”, they do not exist for him. Unity is all that exists.
HOD | Splendor
|8||COMMUNICATION||The act or process of communicating; fact of being communicated. The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs. Something imparted, interchanged, or transmitted.|
9. RETURNING TO THE SOURCE
He has returned to the Origin, come back to the Source,
but his steps have been taken in vain.
It is as though he were now blind and deaf.
Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red.
Back to the Origin: In this image we can see nature in all its splendor, flowers, birds, the river, mountains. It represents what happens after the transcendental experience. Outside the illuminated man, nothing has changed, only man himself has been transformed. He reenters life with different eyes, a new center with another focus guides him. Each time he so wishes he can go within himself and see life through it. All is in peace.
YESOD | Foundation
|9||VITALIZATION||To give life to; make vital. To give vitality or vigor to; animate.|
10. ENTERING THE MARKET PLACE
Barechested, barefooted, he comes into the market place.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom!
In the World: Buddha, after attaining the state of illumination, almost did not come out again and return to the world. His compassion for all beings finally took hold and the rest of his life he dedicated to intense social work that transformed culture and society in his time. In this drawing the illuminated man now directs himself to other beings to help them. He puts all his wisdom at their service.
MALCHUT | Kingship
|10||REALIZED||To grasp or understand clearly. To make real; give reality to a hope, fear, plan, etc. To bring as proceeds, as from a sale.|