Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Reflections on the Ox

June 9, 2015

And the true ox (in Zen’s famous sequence of the ten ox-herding pictures), if there is one, is no ox at all. 



Last week in the zendo I was saying that koans are an affront to our humanity. Maybe I should have been clearer: they are only an affront to our imagined or assumed idea of what it means to be human. To our real humanity they are a blessed expression of itself. They relieve us of our misconceptions and allow the inexpressible wonder of our real identity, our “original face,” the world’s “original face,” to show itself.


When we drop into reality in a moment of “kensho,” or seeing reality, we will tend to emerge with some kind of impression. We have “seen” something. What we see depends on the particular lens or prism or angle of light that is pertinent just then. But it’s only an impression; it’s the real thing, yet it’s also only an angle on the real thing.

An analogy: dropping into the ocean, opening the eyes, a flash goes off, and we return to the surface. Wow, we might say: It’s this amazing land of multicolor coral down there. Or: it’s a towering shaft of sunlight coming down through the dark. Or: it’s this silvery surface high up above. Or: it’s jagged black rocks, or: it’s a sandy shelf for as far as you can see, or: it’s waving fronds of seaweed.

None of these is wrong. But also in a sense, the great ocean itself is just water. Clear, without content.

(OK so it’s not a perfect analogy. I was trying to avoid the famous analogy Buddha used of the five blind men with the elephant. Each touches a different part of the beast, and has his own take on what it is; none encounters the whole elephant.) 

But what I’m trying to get at is: suppose any experience of “oneness” or “goneness” that we may be graced with is always right and true, but also in a sense always necessarily limited. What if they are simply a flash of an impression that stays on the retina of the heart, constructed by conceptual content we have not yet shed. In other words the image or sense of it is in itself evidence of what we are in fact still holding onto. And the true ox (in Zen’s famous sequence of the ten ox-herding pictures), if there is one, is no ox at all.

So the process of the ox-herding pictures goes from searching for the ox, to seeing it (picture 3), to catching it, to taming it, to riding it home (picture 6) – and then finally in picture 7, the ox is gone. In the 8th picture, both ox and self disappear. At that point there is truly nothing.

Maybe that is the true Mahayana, the great vehicle which brings a great delivery of freedom and love for all beings and all creation. The ox makes its appearance only in the middle four of the ten pictures.

We have to be patient. We need to learn to trust in the fact of the ox, rather than scramble to reach it. There is no reaching it. It’s already here, and always has been. If we have faith in that, then, in one sense, what more is needed? Perhaps faith does conquer all in the end.

Image Credit: Zen-Ox-IV, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from
Featured Image Credit: Between Red and White, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from

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