|Ten Ox-Herding Paintings
commonly found on the outside walls of Main Halls
of Korean Seon-bulgyo (Zen Buddhism) temples
The Ten Ox-herding Pictures [in Korean, Ship-u-do 십우도 十牛圖 ] describe the path to
enlightenment and self-development in the Seon (Chan, Zen) tradition. This series of paintings
is frequently seen adorning the walls outer of the Beopdang (法堂, Main Dharma Halls) of
Korean Buddhist temples, especially those of the Jogye Order and Taego Order. They depict
a deep metaphor for the progress of Seon practice, meditation as the path to awakening one's
true mind or Buddha-nature, and uncovering one's innate wisdom and compassion.
The ten images are the representation in folk-motifs of Seon practice used for training the mind.
They depict a young ox-herder searching for, taming and then transcending an ox. The boy
represents the practitioner and the ox represents the mind the practitioner is trying to find,
control and break through to its original nature. The paintings are divided into ten stages of
meditation process while practicing Seon:
1. Searching for the Ox
In this first picture, the young ox-herder is out in nature
looking a little lost, running here and there. We are all
like this ox-herder in this world; we are anxiously
looking for something, inner peace. The ox-herder
is meditating for the first time in searching for his
Buddhahood. In Seon Buddhism, it is assumed that
we all have the innate Buddha-nature, indicating the
potential for such beings to manifest Buddhahood.
2. Seeing the Tracks
The ox-herder finally sees some footprints,
his first traces of finding his missing ox, and
thus gains some hope.
Here the practitioner is catching a glimpse
of his original mind, innate Buddhahood.
3. Seeing the Ox
As the boy follows the tracks of the ox, he finally sees
the ox half-hidden among the trees. This shows that if
the practitioner studies and practices hard, he will find
his true mind (Buddhahood). One week we visit a
temple, another week we talk with a teacher. We
continue to read books to find a good way to practice.
4. Catching the Ox
The boy is trying to catch the wild ox with a rope,
but it does not want to be caught. The boy has to
hang on tightly as the ox jumps fiercely and drags
him hither and thither. Similarly, even though the
practitioner has now had a glimpse of his true nature,
he has not yet severed all delusions from his mind.
It is a tough struggle to pacify all his wild thoughts.
5. Tending the Ox
The boy is gently tending the ox and the ox is not wild
any more. However, he is still holding on to the rope
loosely because he knows that although the fight is
over, he must remain vigilant. Even if one makes
great progress, one must continue to practice hard.
6. Riding the Ox back home
The ox-herder is sitting leisurely on the ox playing
the flute. Riding the trained ox, the boy happily
comes back home. If the practitioner controls his
mind he will return to his true, original mind.
7. The Ox forgotten, the Ox-herder Rests Alone
The ox has disappeared and the boy is resting along at home.
After the boy returns home he sits alone forgetting the ox. He
is at the peace with his mind, body and heart. This means that
even though the practitioner reaches a certain level of
enlightenment, we should keep on practicing without rest.
8. Both the Ox and Ox-herder are Forgotten
Now the boy and the ox are both gone. There is only an empty
circle. It represents 'emptiness' attained by forgetting both ox
and self. We all are interdependent. We are deeply connected
to the world. We realize that everything comes out of emptiness.
Emptiness is not a vacuum, a black hole, but the possibility of
endless transformation. We are a flow of conditions, without any
solid, separate identity. Through complete emptiness the boy
suddenly attains enlightenment, which cannot be described or
depicted, and so a mere circle is shown, suggesting wholeness.
9. Returning to the Original Place, or Restoring the Original Root
Now there is no ox and no boy, only the beautiful natural scene viewed
with the original, clear mind, without subjectivity or judgement. Our life
is ordinary and just as it is but we look at it differently. With this mind
it is possible to see things as they really are. "Mountains are mountains,
and water is water". We realize that everything expresses the truth of
life and awareness, and is communicating it with us.
10. Entering the Market Place with Helping Hands.
The ox-herder, after years of practice, returns from the
mountain to the village. We find spirituality everywhere;
it is not confined to monasteries and secluded places.
This last stage represents freedom, wisdom, benevolent-
action and compassion woring in unity, the core idea of
Buddhism. The ox-herder goes down to teach what he has
realized to all sentient beings, reflecting the Bodhisattva
spirit. Thus we can see how practice deepens our
realization at each stage as we continue on the path.
|Sakyamuni Buddha teaching his disciples
(not part of the Ship-u-do Set)
|Great Seon Master Kusan Seunim [Venerable Nine Mountains] with an ox,
at his home-base temple Jogye-san Songgwang-sa, about 1980