Stories from Dr. Yukari, Story 35, Ox Herding

[ Stories from Dr. Yukari ]
Guided by the hope of St. Nichiren, we continue to work towards a peaceful society. Honolulu Myohoji Mission collaborates with Psychologist Dr. Yukari Kunisue, a trained and experienced therapeutic life coach, to offer a safe online space: Stories from Dr. Yukari

Zen Buddhism speaks on an ox herding story which describes the process through the path of enlightenment. The story is rather simple and describes the relationship of an ox (enlightenment) and the boy (self) throughout a series of ten stages. A Zen monk named Kaku An illustrated the path to enlightenment during the Northern Song dynasty (10th-12thcentury).


I became familiar with the set of ox herding pictures when I was going through a difficult period of my life with both divorce and unemployment. While I was already in my late 40’s, I was just like the little boy who was looking to find himself, or the phantom ox.


Throughout the ten stages, the boy meets the real ox, often called the heart ox and is depicted as a white ox. While reading the story, I was not aiming for enlightenment, especially since that felt a bit far-fetched for an ordinary non-religious woman like myself. I was mostly interested in the farm boy’s journey on seeking the ox. I related with the boy who constantly looked for something but never quite reached for it. While he seemed slightly pathetic yet funny, I found myself relating to him.


Buddhism teaches us that enlightenment is within us. It is nicknamed as Buddha nature and does not reside in other places such as heaven or paradise. In the first image, the boy is seeking the ox while in the second picture, he is seeking footprints. In the third picture, he gets a glimpse of the ox and in the 4th picture he finally catches and ox and later tames in the fifth picture. What I found interesting was that the ox herding did not end when the boy returned home with the ox in the 6th image. Personally, I thought the journey was completed once the end goal has been met.


In the 7th picture, the boy forgets about the ox he finally found. In the 8th image, he even forgets about himself who sought the ox in the first place. These two stages threw me for a loop since I felt that it was beyond my understanding. My teacher explained the two images by using the word “transcendence” to describe the state of having no self along with having no Buddha nature. I still did not understand the concept fully but figured it was all a part of the Zen Buddha concept. I settled upon the thought that the concept is an indication of letting go of attachments. In a Zen temple we sometimes see a circle drawn using a single stroke to describe this state representing emptiness.



What was even more surprising to me was that on the 9th stage, Zen teaches us to return to the original place, “the mountains and water are just as they are. So is the bird that is amongst the flowers”. This statement indicates that we cannot stay in the phase of forgotten bliss that is experienced in the 8th stage in order to reach the heart of the ox. Whether or not you are able to obtain enlightenment, the mountains and flowers are there nonetheless. The ox herding which takes place in the 10th and last image, encourages us to return to the village and help others once we truly understand the place of things.


I see all of us as the ox-herding boy who constantly seeks the “ox”. While we may be at different stages of this journey, no matter where we are, we simply cannot stay absorbed in our own indulgences. I see the final stage as an altruistic stage where the boy grew up as a potbelly Hotei God who lends a nurturing eye to a young boy. Unless we help others, enlightenment has very little meaning.


Ox herding is a story of seeking one’s self and the boy that exists in all of us is who will eventually learn to serve others.