The second stage is described as “finding the ox’s traces.” Now one gets a sense of where one may go in pursuing that question and is inspired to go on further. The ox here is a symbol of the true self in the same way that the circle also is the true self. And so now one sees traces, like hoof prints, or perhaps some droppings, that makes one suspect that the ox must be somewhere nearby.
It may be in the form of some renewed confidence, that “there must be something that makes this life worth living, so let me delve deeper and find out what it is.” It may be an insight of one’s connectedness with all beings, conveyed to one in some unguarded moment. Spurred by these close brushes with the ox, one begins asking more questions and may begin reading some books, going to talks on spirituality, and so on. Or one may go to a religious center, or join a group to pursue some kind of practice that will deepen our sense of awareness and goad us on to go more deeply in our search.
The third stage is the sighting of the ox. Perhaps we may not yet see the whole ox, but we may have a glimpse its tail, or some part of the ox, that makes us sure that the ox is certainly there. But in a good many cases, this is just a slight glimpse, perhaps in a forest amid much foliage, or in the mist in semi-darkness, so we are not able to see it to its full extent. And yet, the glimpse we are given is enough to convey the fact that the ox is indeed right there! We may have seen it at close range, though it still seems somewhat elusive, as we still need to brush aside much that gets in the way of a full view.
The glimpse just whets our appetite for more, and leads us to go further. In the Zen tradition, this third stage is known as the initial opening, or kenshō experience. This is the initial experience of awakening to the true self. We may have only a brief glimpse-but at least we know that it is there. Now we know, not just from hearsay or from others who have seen it, or not just from deducing it from the tracks we may have seen or the ox manure we may have smelled along the way. But having directly seen it, we know that it is there and so we are given a new impetus to follow it more closely and become more intimate with it. And so for those of us who may have had a new experience like this, so suddenly, coming to us like this, we may be tempted to say, “Now I’ve got it! Now, I’ve had kenshō and so I’m enlightened!”
Well, I’ve got news for you: you’ve only just begun what promises to be a lifetime journey. The sighting of the ox may still relapse into a memory or may become a beautiful concept that stays in our head, and in this case, it becomes just another ego trip, and more dangerous, as it is of a spiritual kind. (“Now that I’ve seen it.”), you may think you can claim yourself as an enlightened person and that will mitigate against the journey itself. So, that’s why in our center we do not make such a big fuss about that initial experience. It is like an initial sighting that should simply draw us on to look further.
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