Posted inIntroduction to Zen, Other Teachings

The Zen Oxherding Pictures: Overview, by Ruben Habito

March 18, 2016

We look at the ten oxherding pictures as a mirror that can tell us where we are in our practice.


“The Ten Oxherding Pictures” is a set of ten calligraphic works that portray the different stages in the journey to the realization of the truth, or the realization of the true self. I will first give a general introduction, summarizing each of the ten so that we have a broad picture.

We look at the ten oxherding pictures as a mirror that can tell us where we are in our practice.

As we gaze at one or other of the ten pictures, there may come a sense of recognition- “That’s it! That’s me!” And with this, we are enabled to go on deeper and therefore to understand that next step we need to take, precisely based on our realization of where we are.

One other preliminary point in looking at these ten oxherding pictures is to note that they are not to be taken necessarily as involving a linear and chronological progression, that is, in the sense that the earlier stages are somehow less important than or are only stepping stones to the latter ones. We look at each of them as offering an invitation to enter into a full circle in which our entire being is contained and immersed in right from the start. So looking at these pictures may help us to see where we are in the cosmic circle that includes the entire universe. But this should not lead us to think, “Ah, I’m better than so-and-so because I am in number six and she is just in number three!” We are not meant to see it in a way that bolsters our deluded ego. Conversely, we need not demean ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m only in number two, and others may be in number six or number seven.” And so on. We are invited to see it as a full circle, or perhaps better as a spiral path, where we are in a journey together, and companions along the way, as we each move closer to and closer to the center where we are all connected, and have been so right from the start.

So with the above in mind I would like to first of all make a comment about the circle that is common to all of the ten oxherding pictures. The circle, as we may know from our understanding of the Zen tradition, is a representation of our true self. And it is written in Chinese or Japanese calligraphy in a way that is not exactly mathematically perfect, that is, in a way that every point is equidistant from the center. Instead, it is written given all the contours and angles marked by the human hand that sketched it. That “imperfect circle” with all its particular contours is the manifestation of “things just as they are,” and not the mathematically correct figure where every point in the circle is equidistant from the center, which is only an idealized concept. In short, the circle is drawn by a human hand, with a brush, with all of the contours and angles, in its imperfection, is “perfect” just as it is. One other feature of this circle that you will note if you really look at genuine Zen work closely is that it is not a closed circle. There is always a slight opening somewhere and that indicates that it is not something that is contained in itself, but opens out to unlimited space, to an infinite horizon.

We now look at the circle, keeping in mind the question “Who am I?” and “How can I discover that true self as represented by a circle in me in a way that I can see myself also as open in that dimension that is unlimited?” If you take the cue from the circle it also represents…nothing. Precisely because there is nothing in it, it is also perfect and complete, just as it is. So these two elements–fully empty and yet totally replete–just as it is—tell us about our true self.

Stay tuned, each Oxherding picture will be introduced and briefly described in upcoming posts. Click to see The First Oxherding picture.

First published on the Maria Kannon Zen Center website as, The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Overview.

Image: Discovering the Cow, by Hartwig HDK, CC BY-ND 2.0 from


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