The ninth stage is described as a return to the source. Now, after having forgotten both my “self” and the “world” (that is, what is thought to be “outside of myself,” what emerges? There’s a bamboo shoot. There is a plum blossom. There is a rock beside a gently flowing stream. Beyond that we don’t see anything. This is just the realization of the way things are, as they are, in their naturalness. It is simply realizing that plum blossoms are there, and they are just what they are. All the things in life accepted, taken just for what they are.
The tenth stage is the fullness and completion of the full ten stages. And what does this depict? Here we see the child again, in playful mirth. In India the statues of the Buddha are usually emaciated, giving a sense of asceticism and world-renunciation, of transcendence. In China, however, the pictures of the Buddha are always associated with mirth and laughter and gaiety. So he is depicted as a very roly-poly person, always laughing and happy. And so the Chinese deity of happiness and mirth came to be identified with the figure of the Buddha. Our version depicts the cowgirl meeting a jolly person on the road, and they join in play.
This tenth stage is experiencing that sense of joy and mirth and playfulness in one’s daily life, no matter what. Another depiction of this stage is the return to the market place. We are back in the concrete struggles of our daily life. And yet, we are now able to live them, live right in the midst of them, with a sense of playfulness and inner freedom. We transcend life’s struggles and challenges, not by escaping them, but by plunging ourselves right into them with a new sense of freedom and equanimity, with a sense of humor and a sense of acceptance. This is the stage wherein the powers of compassion gush forth in our lives and enable us to live no longer seeking anything for ourselves, but in service to others, toward the alleviation of suffering and the promotion of the well-being of all.
I have here tried to offer a summary of the ten oxherding pictures in a way that may help us realize that there are different stages along the way, but that we need not get stuck on any particular stage and becoming smug with ourselves. In seeing these steps one by one, we can truly say, “It is good to be, every step along the way.” We keep coming back full circle: it is always the child in us that is the one who draws us to all this.
So what we are invited to do is to keep returning to that child in us, that is truly the one who can partake of the gifts of our being human. And as we can see from the title of the book written by the Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, that is the place that we are always invited to return, that is, come back full circle to where we have been all along. Suzuki Roshi also famously said to his students, “You are perfect just as you are.” And in the same breath, he would say, “There is still much room for improvement.” There is no sense putting on airs, thinking to ourselves, “Now I’ve advanced along the path.” Yet again, we need not downplay our practice, thinking, “Woe is me, I still have a long way to go.”
We can realize both aspects, but yet we also realize that it is a circle that we are invited to simply plunge ourselves into and open our eyes to. As we do so, we know that at every step along the path, there is a fullness that we can experience. It is a fullness that doesn’t let us stop there, but motivates us to take the next step, from fullness to fullness-through a never-ending process of emptying, and finding peace with every step.
Originally published on the Maria Kannon Zen Center website as, The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Overview. Oxherding pictures by Jim Crump for the MKZC series.
Featured Image: Discovering the Cow, by Hartwig HDK, CC BY-ND 2.0 from Flickr.com