Martine Batchelor: The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
Santo Desierto, Tenancingo, Mexico, March 2007.
Tonight I would like to talk about the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. And basically these are ten pictures that represent the meditative path, and they come from the Zen tradition. They can be done with just black ink or you can see them in the walls of the temples in colors. And they also come normally with a poem, but I won’t be reading a poem tonight.
And the story is about a young boy that is looking for his ox. And so each picture has a title, so I will only just use the title and then I will show the relevance to our practice. And at the end of the talk when you leave the room, the pictures will be at the table and you can look at them (see Appendix).
So the first picture is called “searching for the ox”. And in it, the little boy, the little ox herder, is looking here and there. And I think this picture represents the stages before we actually start the practice, which will make us go into the practice. And it is a stage where we feel something is missing, where we are also looking beyond our limits. There is some tension; there is some suffering, so we look for the release of that tension or that suffering. And like the boy we flirt here and there and we try to find that something that is missing in material things, emotional things, outside; so we are trying to find a partner, we are out trying to find a job, out trying find… looking for something. But actually the only place where we can find it is within ourselves, because we get the material thing, the emotional fulfillment and we still feel something is missing. I know this for myself because I have desired to go beyond my limitations. And this, I think, can happen at any age. For myself it was when I was eighteen, but for other people it might be when they are forty, fifty, etc.
My friend, for example, she comes from a very good family in Switzerland, very wealthy, very cultured and at age fifty three she left every thing behind and she just went to Dharamasala, and just lived in a hut, and became a nun to study with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And then she practiced very hard and what is interesting is that she became much respected. And then she came back to Switzerland. And then when she was seventy and she was a nun for about fifteen years, she wanted to talk to us about something special, she asked us: what would we think if she were to stop being a nun? And we gave her a very traditional answer, we said: you know, because she was such an example it would be a pity if she stopped being a nun; and fortunately she did not listen to us. And she stopped being a nun because she wanted to be more free and I loved that, the idea that at seventy she wanted to be more free, which did not stop her to continue to practice.
The second picture is called “seeing the footprints”. And then, the little ox-herder sees that there are footprints on the path. And I think this is the moment when we start to find the traces of the spiritual path, so we might read books, we might read poetry, all of which leaves spiritual traces. And I remember for myself that this is when I started to read Zen poetry, and then I would read “the great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose” and I would feel aaah! This is deep! I would read these poems like “the arrow flied through the sky without leaving any traces”; “the shadow of the bamboo sweeps the stairs but there is no dust”, and I would think uuuh!, deep! (Laughter). However, I was left wondering, what is important about these traces? Is it that they are old or are they new? Are they relevant or not? Can we apply them or not? Because, I mean, they could be very old traces. And I know for myself, when I was eighteen and I became interested in the spiritual path, in those days, in the seventies, I found Krishnamurti and I thought ahh! This is really something. So, I took a book, I took a blanket and I went to the mountains for three days. And I didn’t bring any food, so I did not have to be bothered, I would fast. And I was in the Alps, so I stared, you know, I climbed up and I sat in these beautiful meadows and had this beautiful view; and then I would read two pages of the book, and it said, you know: be aware, look, deepen and then I would… (laugther) and then I would read the book again and then I would look again, and I did this for a whole day, but nothing happened, so I dropped it. Because Krishnamurti might be a very interesting teaching, but all you saw at that time… there was no way I could have applied it in a way that would work for me.
Then there is the third picture and it is called “seeing the ox tail”. So, there is like a bush and in the bush the boy just sees the bottom of the ox with a tail flickering. And so then he knows the ox is there, but still it is a little kind of fleeting. And I feel this is when we can or try to go beyond the words and we try to practice. And then we encounter many different paths, many different methods and again the question is: what is it that fits? What is it that inspires me? What is it that is meaningful? What is it that is beneficial?
And I remember for myself when I was a teen, this was in the seventies, there were not too many things, even in England. So, two things I tried. The first was Taoism by correspondence, that would get kind of, you know, they would tell me exercises. And the first of the exercises was to lie on the bed and to imagine myself going out through the ceiling, and I tried for a week and it did not work, so I dropped Taoism. Then all my friends were into Rajneesh and I thought, well maybe I should do like them. So, every evening after work I went with about fifteen other people into a basement to hyperventilate naked. I did this for a week. And then they invited me to do it for another week, but I said I did not think it was for me. So again, I think, this is a stage where we can try so many different things. And then we might even, we might see just Buddhism, but even with Buddhism we don’t have only one tradition, we have many paths; you can find the Tibetan, and even within the Tibetan you have different schools; then you have the Theravada and then you have the Zen school. And so I came to Tibetan Buddhism in various ways, but for some reason it did not fit with me.
And then I was in Thailand and I tried to do some meditation there, but there I wasn’t so sure about the place of women, since I am a feminist, so I thought “not here”. And then I went to Korea and then, I think, this was the only place where I could become a nun and in a way, the method, the place, the culture really fitted with my temperament. So, it is not that the other method was no good, but that it did not fit with me. So, I think that when we choose a path, it is not the highest or the best, but it is really: What is it that works for me?
And then there is a fourth picture and it is called “catching the ox”. And for me this is the most powerful picture, because finally, the little boy has caught the ox with a rope and he really holds the ox. But the ox doesn’t want to be caught, so he has to really hold on to the rope and he is moving kind of back and forward. And I think this is an image of energy, with effort. And it is when we really decide to evolve; this means that we really are going to do it, we really are going to practice. And then it is a real struggle, we really are wrestling with the practice, with all our body and mind. And I think in that moment, like the little boy, we need a lot of determination to hold on, because if we have cultivated such habits for twenty or thirty years, they are not going to disappear overnight. And I know for myself, this picture is when I became a nun in Korea and then I started my three month retreat. And then I found it so difficult to sit and meditate, we would get up at three a clock in the morning, go to bed at nine a clock and then we would sit ten times during the day. And so by blocks of two, three, four sitting periods to a day; and so I would sit the first sitting of one period and then I would go, because I would think, oh la la! This is so hard. I must do something much more useful, like helping in the kitchen or learning Korean. So in a way, I was doing the retreat in my own terms and one day the Master came to sit with us, so I really sat well, I put all my effort in that. But then, at the end of the sitting I was so exhausted, that if he wanted to stay again, I am off! Then when I came back for the next period the leader of us all had the dictionary in hand, and he said: “the Master said...” So we looked together and he said: “ogchido champa”; which means “to bear beyond strength”. Then I thought: if the Master said it, I must consider it. And then I reflected that they have been doing this for eight hundred years and nobody ever died from it, and that maybe I could give it a try. Then I did not miss any sitting and then within a month, I was the first one to arrive to the meditation hall and there was no problem any more. And so in a way the Master helped me to go beyond my own preferences. And I think this is what this picture is about, it is kind of when we are struggling with our habits and our preferences.
And then there is a fifth picture and it is called “tending the ox”. And then, you have the boy and the ox at the same level walking together, but still the boy is holding the rope lightly. So this is when we become familiar with the practice, when we start to know what we do; there is no struggle and we can really apply ourselves. But still we have to be careful, we need to be vigilant because who knows, the ox might suddenly decide to flee. And sometimes, you know, we practice and it goes very well and suddenly it does not. And once this happened to me during a three month retreat, for two weeks I would sit more than ten hours a day, and I would do the “What is this?” practice and nothing worked; I would be sleepy, I would have thoughts, it would be so hard, but I could not leave because you don’t leave in the middle of a three month retreat; so, I just sat day after day and then after two weeks, we were listening to a tape of a great Master and suddenly, something resonated and then the practice went very well.
And then there is a sixth picture and it is called “riding the ox back home”. And so, there the boy is on top of the ox and he is playing the flute, and then the ox knows the way home by himself. And I think this picture is a picture of ease, of lightness, of freedom, of creativity, of joy. Because I think, in a way, we have to be careful not to take, to think that the spiritual path is something always serious. For me, sitting in meditation helps us to be more active, lighter and also to become more creative and this also in an artistic way: having the freedom of movement to create for the sake of itself, for the sake of creating; not for competition, not for wealth, but just for the joy of creating. And this is also a picture of fluidity. So, you know the Way and in a way we don’t have any expectations regarding the practice any more, we do it for its own sake.
I remember when we used to be about ten, fifteen Westerners sitting in meditation as monks and nuns in Korea, different nationalities. And then, often the people from the embassy would come and see this kind of weird, kind of English or French or whatever. And so, you know, we would meet them and then generally they would ask: “what do you do?” And we said, you know, we sit ten hours a day from three to nine; and then they would ask: “why are you doing this?” And so, we would look at each other…. (laughter); and then I would say: “just to sit”. And I think this is what this picture is about, when we really do it just for its own sake without any expectations.
Then there is a seventh picture and it is called “forgetting the ox, the person rests alone”. And here, you have a little hut, you have the moon and you just have the little ox-herder looking at the moon and no ox. All this work to get the ox and now it is gone! And to me this picture is the stage in the practice when there is no separation any more between meditation and daily life or between the spiritual and non-spiritual, and it just becomes a natural way of being aware in the moment, of being awake in the moment. So in a way, we can rest in the moment, just like the ox-herder appreciating the moon; in a way we don’t need to be anywhere else, anybody else, we are just very present of what is going on in that moment.
And then there is an eighth picture and it is called “the ox and the ox-herder are both forgotten”. And here, you just have the picture of the Zen circle. So again, all this hard work, ox, ox-herder and now they are gone! But it doesn’t mean that we become literately a circle; rather, it is like when we let go of the grip, let go of the grasping; and it is when this kind of sense of self starts to dissipate and when this idea of me and mine starts to dissipate. I mean you’ve been sitting here for five days and from day one you sat in a place and how did you feel when someone was kind of looking like they were going to sit in my place. You felt it was your space, your cushion, your zabuton; when actually it is not your place, it is not your zabuton. But very quickly, you know, we become like this, this is mine. And sometimes I think it would be interesting, instead of saying: “I am going there”, to say: “this flow of conditions is going there”; or to say instead of “this is my cushion”, “this flow of conditions is using this cushion”. And it feels a little different, doesn’t it? It is a little contrived to say it all the time. But I think this is what this stage is about, when we start to experience our self and encounter the world as a flow of conditions. And at the same time we do not reduce our self to or define our self by just one of the conditions that conforms us. Because when we reduce our self into a condition we stop our creative potential. And so, I would say, this picture is when finally our creative potential really blossoms, really gets activated. But I think, also this picture is about a time in the practice when we experience emptiness. We must be careful, however, this is not to say that we attach our self or grasp at that emptiness.
I remember once in Korea on a retreat, three monks had decided to go and do a harder retreat. So they were not sitting ten hours, they were sitting sixteen hours a day. And so they went out to sit in a hermit two hours from the main monastery, and they really sat day and night, really hard. And then after a month one of them had this amazing experience of emptiness, so he ran down the mountain, he goes to master Kusan and he said: “Master, Master, I am awakened, everything is empty”; and so the Master takes his very heavy wooden stick and he hits him in the arm; and the monk says: “Ouch!”. And then the master said: “see, not everything is empty”. But the monk wasn’t convinced, so he goes to see another great Master, because his experience had been so amazing, but the next Zen Master does exactly the same thing. So still not convinced, he goes to a third great Master, and the third Zen Master does exactly the same thing. So then he understands that it is an experience but not the end of the path. And then, he goes back to the hermitage, because there is two more pictures.
So now there is a ninth picture and it is called “returning to the original place”. And the picture is generally of something from nature, so maybe it has some bamboo or maybe it has some cherry blossoms, or some plum trees. And in a way this stage shows there is a stage further than emptiness, and that is the stage of interconnection, of interdependence, there is no separation of the world and the self. And it is that experience that we had, which I mentioned about the fact that we breathe the same air with the whole of life. So in a way, we come back to the deep connection that we may share with nature and the world; and also to see that we can learn from everything around us. And my teacher Master Kusan used to point out to the special orchid who grows in the mountain and he said: “in the mountain there is this really fragrant orchid, and the fragrance goes everywhere, and even if there wasn’t anybody it still has a fragrance; also it did not choose where the fragrance goes”. And so in a way, he was saying “be like this orchid, cultivate wisdom and compassion without exception, cultivate wisdom and compassion in a way it reaches out to everybody”.
And this leads me to the last picture, the number ten, and it is called “appearing in the market place with gifts”. So, in this picture, the little boy reappears and then we think there is this kind of fat monk with a big bag and also with ragged clothes. And so this picture is in a way, kind of the connection with the world, but with activity. So the path is not just for oneself; rather, we can come back to the world with activity, with responsiveness, with skillfulness. And the ragged clothes are because we can become flexible, so we can adapt to high and low. Again, we don’t choose who we are compassionate to, but we can try to give out our compassion everywhere as much as we can. But also to do it in an appropriate manner, that is why there are all the gifts in the bag, there are all sorts of things. And if you can then give to people according to what is needed, according to what is asked, according to what you can give. And I think we also have to see that in a way, in the compassion, in the love, in that active response, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we do something; because sometimes what the compassion and the love ask us, actually, it is just to be there.
And I remember once we were at home in France and my niece, my little niece had come to stay with my mother who lived downstairs. And then, we just had worked in the garden and we just came resting in the living room listening to Schubert and suddenly, she burst into the living room, we looked at her, she listened to the music and she said: “I am going to dance”; and we just indicated that sure, why not. And then, she went on to dance on this classical music ─it was not the Bolshoi or something─ but she danced for thirty minutes. And the only thing we had to do was to look at her and to look at her in a kind way, in an appreciative way. And she would check that we were looking at her, and then after thirty minutes she disappeared. And what was interesting is that the next day she came up again and she wanted me to put the music so she could dance, in order to recreate what had been an amazing experience for the three of us for thirty minutes. But she could not recreate it again, the music was not right. In a way, to see that sometimes we don’t have to do much, but we just have to be very kind with attention. But all the time we have to be creative, we have to see, what can I do here?
I remember many years ago my nephew was not so well, so he came to live with my mother and my grandmother. And my mother was going to be away; so then, I thought it would be better if I went there in the middle of that going away, because my nephew and my grandma did not get along well, and I thought they would be in trouble. So within a week of them being just the two of them, I arrived, and war had being declared and they did not speak to each other. So very quickly I thought I needed to do something, and so I went to my nephew and I said to my nephew ─he was about twenty five and my grandma was about eighty─ and I asked him: “do you think that grandma can change at eighty?”; because I asked him: “what is the trouble?”; and he said “she can’t see me eye to eye, she does things in a weird way”. But when I asked him: “do you think she can change?” he said: “I don’t think so”; “so what do you think?”; he said: “well yes, it is true, maybe I should change, because I can not force her to change”. And then he changed and then he could see he could look at grandma with much more compassion, much more understanding. And then I could leave. And some months later we were all together and my mother was very upset at her mother, and then my nephew said to my mother: “she is not going to change”. So in a way, in compassion, I think what is important is to listen. What is it that is needed? Can I give it? So I think in a way, what meditation can help us with, is to develop creative ways of compassion for ourselves and others. And to see in a way that we need to have ultimate compassion for ourselves and for others. So that also, the compassion can take many different forms, there is not only one type of Buddhist compassion, which is why there are many gifts in the bag.
And if I think of a nun I met in Thailand -and in Thailand the nuns they wear white- and she was about forty, but she looked like twenty five, and she looked really pure like she was floating above the ground, an ideal way of how a nun should look like. And I asked her what her activities were. And she was organizing a retreat for young students, she also was taking care of a kindergarten for disabled children; she was also having a little refuge for unmarried mothers; and then, she was also taking care of Thai boxers, and Thai boxing is very violent, and when she said this, I asked: “Thai boxers?” “Well, they too need spiritual help; they need also wisdom and compassion”.
Or if I think of a friend in America, and he is a Buddhist, he practices meditation, once a year for a month he goes into retreat. But, at the same time he really is a high flying financial person, he is kind of the head of a big financial thing, were there are all these guys looking at all these screens. And he earns a lot of money, and he lives by American standards in a small house. And wherever he goes, he invites to his house people who work under him, they are always surprised, because they expect a huge house with ten bathrooms and twenty rooms and two swimming pools and there is no swimming pool and it is very small. And they can’t understand it, because they think that in order to show his status he has to show his material things. But he says: “I only need two rooms; I don’t need more than that, I just have me and my wife”. Because with his money what he does is give it away to charity, so in a way he earns money -of course, so that he can live- but he actually earns money so that he can give it to people. And I was so impressed by that, because we are so caught up in money and we are so worried about it; and it is very connected to our sense of self, so it was very inspiring to see that. And for me, this is creative and wise compassion.
And in a way, if we look at all these pictures, we have to see that although they go from one to ten, they are not linear, it is not a linear progression. I think it is more like a spiral, and actually, often we come back to the same place but maybe in a higher way. So, you know, we might have gone to the tenth place, but we might come back to the fourth place. Suddenly the practice seems like a struggle or come back to the first place, because the practice seems a little dull and then we look, maybe, into another thing, that might add up to our practice. And so, to look at these images and say: “what can they tell us about our practice?”
So, for the people who are leaving tonight, please have a good journey home and drive carefully with meditation, don’t talk too much as you drive in the car, because you are driving in the dark; and please have a good life. And for the people who are staying here continuing with the sitting, please continue with the silence if you can. And we meet again in fifteen minutes for the final sitting.
Transcrpción: Mikael Lomelín Benchetrit, Xalapa, Veracruz, México.