Posted inDogen, Other Teachings

Awakening: The Enemy of the People? Part 3 of 3

December 27, 2016

Dogen said: “ordinary beings have no awakening in their consciousness; buddhas have no consciousness in their awakening.”



Click to read Part 1 and Part 2

Picking up on the Ox-herding Pictures….

Pictures 1 and 2. Get on the path of training.

Picture 3. Sooner or later, a glimpse of the Ox, of the “absolute”, will likely befall us.

Picture 4. With another 10 or 20 or 30 years of training, another deeper letting-go can happen, after which the “ox” does not disappear from view once again, but remains clear and apparent. This is the fourth ox picture, and it is a major turning-point in a life of practice and training. In some ways it’s the fulfillment of a human life, a threshold has been crossed, a point of no return reached.

Yasutani Roshi once said that he doubted more than two or three people alive on earth had reached the stage of the fourth ox. Other masters might appreciate his caution but still recognize that it is a real possibility for serious practitioners in this lifetime.

And if it happens, then what? What do we do then? Brag about it for the next five years? Rest on our laurels? Many might be tempted to do either.

But there are another six ox-herding pictures to go: Numbers Five through Ten. And we could remember that Joshu had not one but eighteen “great enlightenments.”

This is where the severing of a connection with the deep masters of Japan may have been unhelpful in some instances. Without rigorous ongoing training, who can be sure they have even reached the fourth ox picture? And if there is some kind of confirmation that they have, from a reliable source, then without ongoing training beyond it,  arrogance, pride, self-deception, invocation of new meanings, new methods of teaching, the wholesale dilution and distortion of the teachings can easily creep in.

The training is an “ice-ridge,” a “mountain of swords” – one slip and the mind, the self, the ego is right back in the driving seat. And without a seasoned, deep master overseeing us, one who is thoroughly connected to the whole preceding lineage of awakening in a concrete flesh-and-blood way, through her or his long-running tutelage under a great master, it’s very hard to know if we are going off the rails.

What actually follows after the Fourth Ox Picture, according to the tradition, is this: learning to live out awakening in every moment; then doing that but without any consciousness of it at all. Then doing the same, but without consciousness even of having lost consciousness of awakening. As Dogen said: “ordinary beings have no awakening in their consciousness; buddhas have no consciousness in their awakening.”

Only more hammer-blows to the head will knock that consciousness clean out of us.

We are too young at this in the West. We should be wary of kicking away the ladder by which our masters helped us climb up. We may think we’ve reached the rooftop of the House of Zen, but without an adequate guide, how do we know? Perhaps we’re only on the second or third floor. And what if we are on the rooftop? We should be down in the streets anyway, helping out, serving the traders and beggars, the shoppers and shleppers and shopkeepers, the halt and lame, the sick and old, the young and hopeful. Who is going to help us get down, if we have decided we no longer need the great masters?

That’s what Ox Picture Five is about. Hard work, hard study, hard tutelage under a true guide. More awakenings, deeper discoveries, more wearing away of the harder corners of personality, and so on.

Is it worth it? You could also ask: what else are we going to do? The only thing we can say for sure is that somehow the experience of life and death is going on, right here and now. And the masters concur in one thing: this human life is a possibility, a potential, an opportunity, so why not make the most of it, in the time-honored way that they direct us to…


Message from Henry taken from our December 27, 2016 newsletter
Image: sengai_ox_herding_zen, CC0 Public Domain, from

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