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Intro to the Ten Oxherding images | The Ten Oxherding Images


zen face

Is Zen A Religion?

By Kubota Jiun (Translated by Paul Shepherd)

Let me state my conclusion regarding the above question at the outset. I believe that Zen is not a religion in the ordinary sense. There are several reasons I can give for this.

First of all, that which is usually referred to as religion begins and ends with the element of faith. That is, religion conventionally starts with belief in an absolute or supreme being-God or Buddha, for example-who can either be the creator of the universe or dwell in our hearts. This faith is then deepened over the days and years until it becomes unshakable. I understand that as an absolute condition for religion in the traditional sense.

As for Zen, although belief in an intrinsic and essential nature, infinite and absolute, is the start of practice, it is through realizing that infinite and absolute essential nature in the experience of satori that the need for belief vanishes. Or put more succinctly, Zen practice begins with belief and ends in actual experience. Here is an aspect of Zen that distinguishes it fundamentally from religions containing only the element of faith.

A second reason why Zen is not a religion is the absence of particular scriptures to depend upon. Christianity has its Bible, Islam its Koran; even in Buddhism, the Hokke Sect has the Lotus Sutra, the Kegon Sect the Kegon Sutra, and the Jodo Sect the Jodo Sutra. These scriptures are all maintained and carefully preserved, and the interpretation of individuals words and phrases has an extremely important meaning and significance. Although it would be inaccurate to say that writings in the Zen sect are not traditional scriptures, Zen is distinguished by lacking a single scripture upon which everything depends. And although we could stretch a point, perhaps, and say the Hannyashingyo (Heart Sutra) is such a traditional scripture, as long as study of this sutra ends in intellectual discussion, it has no relation to Zen whatsoever.

zen face

Yet another reason why Zen is not a religion in the conventional sense is its very practical approach of negating all concepts. Although most religions also have a practical side known as prayer, this is usually a subjective action of the individual and not an organized system of practice. Instead, the most important role is played by the sermons of religious leaders, based mainly on inherited scriptures, or exposition of the meaning of individual words or phrases in those scriptures. Zen, however, negates all concepts; instead, the central focus is experience in which the fact is experienced as fact. Zen also has zazen, a concrete and practical method of adjusting the body, breath and spirit to realize truth. Zen has moreover developed methods of guidance toward realization in which we practice zazen to realize the fact as fact. In this respect Zen differs fundamentally from religions in the usual sense.

However, when we consider the matter carefully, is it enough in relieving human suffering and gaining true peace of mind to simply believe sacred scriptures that are a natural outpouring of the enlightenment experiences of the ancient worthies? Is it enough to be able to interpret individual phrases of those scriptures with unsurpassed skill or simply pray in that direction? When all is said and done, we cannot forego the five aspects of belief (shin), understanding (ge), practice (gyo), enlightenment (sho) and personalization (nyo). If peace of mind is truly a matter of believing and understanding a reality that we have made our own, we must practice ourselves and realize so that it becomes an immutable fact. We must then personalize that experience before we can live relatively free of worry.

Viewed in this way, perhaps only Zen, with its aspects of practice and realization, can be called a religion in the true sense of the word. In Case Nine of the Blue Cliff Record, a monk asks Joshu, "What is Joshu?" Joshu is also the name of the area where Joshu Osho lived. With his question, the monk is pressing Joshu to reveal his enlightened state of consciousness. In reply, Joshu says, "East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate." Because the geographical place Joshu has an east, west, south and north gate, Master Joshu presents the monk directly with the geographical Joshu. In Joshu's consciousness, however, there are no gates at all. By his reply, Joshu reveals his totally free state of consciousness, telling the monk to enter from any gate that he wishes and Joshu will be a match for him. No matter what should enter by any one of the gates, the totally unfettered Joshu is ready with an appropriate response at that time and place.

That is the reason why Zen can accept people of any religion, and why all people, regardless of their background, can deepen their state of consciousness through Zen practice and thus savour the true meaning of the religion they profess. It is due to this special characteristic of Zen that so many Catholic priests and sisters as well as Protestant ministers come to practice at San-Un Zendo.

zen face

Introduction to the Ten Oxherding pictures.

This poetic picture story, a boy herdsman, stands for none other than you, dear reader. It is the very "I" that reads these lines through a pair of eyes, the subject of your life, the protagonist of that unique story that is yours. It is what thinks your thoughts, makes your plans, has your desires, and signs your checks: it is what was born of your parents and will die on your deathbed.

This "I" is also the starting point of the Zen Buddhist quest. When a Chinese man called Huike, according to a Zen story, met Bodhidharma, the following conversation ensued:

"Please, Master, bring peace to my heart-mind!"
Bodhidharma: "Show it to me, and I will pacify it!
Huike: "I have searched for it, but I could not find it."
Bodhidharma: "If you could search for it, how could it be your very own heart-mind?"

In Zen Buddhism, the injunction "show me your self" has a particular ring, as the root-source of man's basic dissatisfaction and the engine of his striving is none other than this "I". The Japanese Zen master Bankei, for example, diagnosed the basic human problem as follows:

Your self-partiality is at the root of all your illusions. There aren't any illusions when you don't have this preference for yourself. Rather than being the goal of man's quest, Zen thus sees the "I" as the very problem. Thus the herdsman, who has an "I" just as all of us do, sets out in search of what he truly is. The object of this search, man's true self, is represented by an ox or buffalo. The quest extends from the seeing of faint traces picture 2) to the thorough overcoming of the problematic "I" with all of its objects (including the ox; picture 8) and to the emergence of nature as it truly is (9).

In the Indian Upanishads, the highest spiritual goal is the realization that one's own true self, one's atman, is nothing other than the very essence of everything, i.e., brahman. "Tat tvam asi", "That thou art," is its expression. In terms of the present classic of Zen literature, the Ten Oxherding images, that means: your true self, what you really are without realizing it, is nothing other than that ox < and that flower, or your neighbour. Thus the true man in picture 10 is not aloof from the world but rather right here, in the bustle of the marketplace.

The Ox-Herding images

Around 800AD Zen teachers started using Ox herding pictures to explain the way of controlling the mind until enlightenment. There are many variations, but the standard version (below) is well accepted often seen in Zen art and literature. It is sometime explain in accompanying literature, but this perhaps it is better read, visualized and thought about several times before commentary puts fixed ideas in your head.

1. Undisciplined


1. Undisciplined - With his horns fiercely projected in the air the beast snorts,
Madly running over the mountain paths, farther and farther he goes astray!

A dark cloud is spread across the entrance of the valley,
And who knows how much of the fine fresh herb is trampled under his wild hoofs!

2. Discipline Begun


I am in possession of a straw rope, and I pass it through his nose.
For once he makes a frantic attempt to run away,
but he is severely whipped and whipped; The beast resists the training
with all the power there is in a nature wild and ungoverned,
But the rustic ox herd never relaxes his pulling tether and ever-ready whip.

3. In Harness


Gradually getting into harness the beast is now content to be led by the nose,
Crossing the stream, walking along the mountain path,
he follows every step of the leader; The leader holds the rope tightly
in his hand never letting it go, all day long he is on the
alert almost unconscious of what fatigue is.

4. Faced Round


After long days of training the result begins to tell and the beast is faced round,
A nature so wild and ungoverned is finally broken, he has become gentler;
But the tender has not yet given him his full confidence,
He still keeps his straw rope with which the ox is now tied to a tree.

5. Tamed


Under the green willow tree and by the ancient mountain stream,
The ox is set at liberty to pursue his own pleasures;
At the eventide when a grey mist descends on the pasture,
The boy wends his homeward way with the animal quietly following.

6. Unimpeded


On the verdant field the beast contentedly lies idling his time away.
No whip is needed now, nor any kind of restraint;
The boy too sits leisurely under the pine tree,
Playing a tune of peace, overflowing with joy.

7. Laissez Faire


The spring stream in the evening sun flows languidly along the willow-lined bank,
In the hazy atmosphere the meadow grass is seen growing thick;
When hungry he grazes, when thirsty he quaffs, as time sweetly slides,
While the boy on the rock dozes for hours not noticing anything that goes on about him.

8. All Forgotten


The beast all in white now is surrounded by the white clouds.
The man is perfectly at his ease and care-free, so is his companion;
The white clouds penetrated by the moon-light cast their white shadows below.
The white clouds and the bright moonlight each following its course of movement.

9. The Solitary Moon


Nowhere is the beast, and the ox herd is master of his time.
He is a solitary cloud wafting lightly along the mountain peaks;
Clapping his hands he sings joyfully in the moon-light,
but remember a last wall is still left barring his homeward walk.

10. Both Vanished


Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left.
The bright moon-light is empty and shadowless with all the ten-thousand
objects in it; If anyone should ask the meaning of this, Behold the lilies
of the field and its fresh sweet-scented verdure.

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