From ancient time, all traditions have set up “paths” of spiritual development. The Zen Oxherding Pictures show the passage from initiation – the search for self – to a maturation of insight, and return to ordinary life. The drawings represent the steps that lead to spiritual illumination.
The pictures symbolize the combination of the sacred and the profane. The bull represents the animal nature in every human being, it is united to the spiritual nature. The struggle to harmonize the physical impulses and appetites is equivalent to also integrating those of the spirit. The student can use the images to evaluate his advancement, or discover in which stage of the spiritual path he is at.
First image : The Search for the Bull represents man when he still doesn’t know his true nature, but one way or another, has already started his search. He wishes to find it, though he doesn’t 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, that 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 that have started the “search” are at this first stage.
Second image: Finding the path. In this second stage, the searcher finds indications, clues in one or more spiritual traditions, he is attracted by books of wisdom, he assists to conferences on the subject, he meets masters and notices that there are others that have followed the same path, he is not the first person to have noticed that there is something subtle to attain. Generally, this stage starts with meditation practice or other disciplines. Through these, the person experiences sensations related to the spirit. In the first image, the farmer searches all over, whereas in the second image his search is more focused and better oriented.
Third image: 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.
Fourth image: Capturing the bull. The farmer 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.
Fifth image: Taming the bull. This represents the control of our physical or animal nature – and this is attained by knowing it – in other words, listening and dialoguing with it. The farmer 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. At this stage, he integrates his consciousness with his basic nature. For example, a professional animal trainer knows that using force will not tame the animal, only harmonizing his consciousness with the animal conscience can do 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.
Sixth image: 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. In this way, the physical vital force becomes an ally. In the sixth drawing, we can see how the man is riding the bull, without reins, and the bull knows where to go, and it goes without being directed. He is playing the flute, peacefully, on the back of the bull. The struggle is over, the man has attained the state of enlightenment.
Seventh image: The transcended bull. In the seventh stage, the farmer is alone and happy, sitting by his house, whereas the bull is no longer visible. The man 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.)
Eighth image: 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, the man can’t even say “I’m illuminated” or “I’m not illuminated”, they don’t exist for him, Unity is all that exists.
Ninth image: Back to the origin. In this ninth 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, the only man himself has been transformed. He re-enters life, seeing it with different eyes, and 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.
Tenth image: In the world. In this last image, Buddha, after attaining the state of illumination, returns to the world. In this drawing, the illuminated man directs himself towards other beings, to help them. He puts all his wisdom at their service.
In the twelfth century, the Chinese master Kakuan drew the pictures of the ten bulls – basing them on earlier Taoist bulls – and wrote the verses and the comments. His version was pure Zen, going deeper than earlier versions, which had ended with the nothingness of the eighth picture. It has been a constant source of inspiration to students ever since, and many illustrations of Kakuan’s bulls have been made through the centuries.
The bull is the eternal principle of life, truth in action. The Ten Bulls represent sequent steps in the realization of one’s true nature. The 10 Bulls is more than poetry, more than pictures. It is a revelation of spiritual unfoldment paralleled in every aspect of human experience.