The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures: The Pursuit of Buddhahood

Picture 004An Ox-Herding Statue at Manbulsa Temple in Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. It’s meant to symbolize all ten pictures.

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On the outer walls of the Main Halls at a temple, or on a nearby temple hall, you can see paintings of an ox-herder and his ox. These paintings can either be by themselves, or in unison with the Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life (Palsang-do). Either way, these paintings adorn the walls of Seon monasteries and temples in both Korea and in China. In English, we call these paintings the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, and in Korean they are called Shim-u-do. They first came to Korea during the Sung Dynasty (1126-1279) in China. They were originally conceived by Buddhist masters as a teaching device for novices. These pictures depict a deep metaphor for the Seon practice. Because the Seon practice emphasizes the practice of meditation to uncover innate wisdom and compassion, these pictures represent the training of the mind.

 In total, there are ten different pictures in the Ox-Herding Pictures (Shim-u-do) set. In these pictures, the central figures are an ox-herding boy and an ox. As the paintings proceed, the metaphor of the ox-herding boy soon becomes you, while the ox is your mind. So with all that being said, let’s take a closer look at each of the individual paintings.

 1. Searching for the Ox:

In this first picture, the young ox-herder is in the wild looking a little lost, seemingly wandering around aimlessly, as though in search of something. The ox is absent in this picture. According to the Seon practice, we are all like this young ox-herder. We are all looking for inner peace and happiness, but we are subject to our passions and the suffering that these passions entail.

 In this first picture, the young ox-herder is in the wild looking a little lost, seemingly wandering around aimlessly, as though in search of something. The ox is absent in this picture. According to the Seon practice, we are all like this young ox-herder. We are all looking for inner peace and happiness, but we are subject to our passions and the suffering that these passions entail.

wonhyoam3

The first picture of the series, Searching for the Ox, from Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

2. Seeing the Tracks:

In this second picture, the ox-herder finally sees some footprints. The boy, searching for the ox, finds signs of the ox’s existence. Here, an individual is catching a glimpse of his innate Buddhahood self. With this realization, there is an awareness by the individual. This awareness that he has is that there is a possibility of transcending his pain and suffering. Thus, he has an initial awareness and understanding of the origins of earthly pain and suffering.

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The second picture, Seeing the Tracks, from Pyochungsa Temple in Miryang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

3. Seeing the Ox:

In the third picture of the set, the boy follows the tracks of the ox, and he’s able to finally see the half-hidden ox that appears among the trees. This shows that through hard work, both in practice and studying, one can find their own true mind (or Buddhahood).

3. Geukrakam

The third painting, Seeing the Ox, also from Geukrakam Hermitage near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

4. Catching the Ox:

The ox-herder, in the fourth picture, is trying hard to catch the wild ox with his rope; however, the ox doesn’t want to be caught. As a result, as the ox fights the boy, the boy has to hang on tightly as he’s being dragged along on the ground. Symbolically, the picture demonstrates the struggle which happens as a result of not fully transcending ones passions and desires. So while an individual has caught a glimpse of his true nature (Buddhahood), he has yet to break free from his desires and wants. This is a difficult struggle between ones true nature and ones passions. However, in some pictures, the progressive whitening of the ox illustrates the gradual awakening of the individual towards their original mind (Buddhahood).

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The fourth picture, Catching the Ox, also from Pyochungsa Temple.

5. Tending (or Taming) the Ox:

In this picture, the fifth in the set, we see the ox-herding boy gently tending to, and taming, the ox. In the picture, even though the struggle seems to be over, the ox-herder is still loosely holding the ox’s rope, while keeping his whip ready the entire while. The way that this is symbolic for the Seon practitioner is that it demonstrates how a student of the faith must keep his mind from wandering. And the way that one can do this is by continually practicing hard.

5. Anyangam

The fifth picture in the set, Tending the Ox, from Anyangam Hermitage, which is near Tongdosa Temple.

6. Riding the Ox Back Home:

In the sixth picture, the ox-herder is sitting leisurely on top of the ox as he makes his way back home. What this picture symbolizes is that the ox-herder is no longer bound by the world. His mind is no longer deceived. Instead, he now has control over his mind, and he can now return “home” to his true mind (Buddhahood). So with joy and contentment in his heart and mind, he returns “home.”

6. Biroam

The sixth picture, Riding the Ox Back Home, from Biroam Hermitage, which is near Tongdosa Temple.

7. The Ox Transcended (or Forgotten):

In this picture, the seventh in the series, the ox disappears and the ox-herder is left all alone and resting at home. As he sits all alone, he forgets about the ox. He is at peace in his heart and mind. By forgetting about the ox, the ox-herder transcends the “self.” There is no longer any ego, or notion of the “self” to delude an individuals mind. There is only stillness.

7. Anyangam

The seventh picture in the set, The Ox Transcended, also from Anyangam Hermitage.

8. Both the Ox and the Ox-Herder are Transcended (or Forgotten):

Now, in the eighth picture, both the ox and the ox-herder are forgotten. All that is now left is an empty circle. This empty circle represents the “emptiness” attained by forgetting both the ox and the self. At this point, one realizes that everything comes from emptiness. However, it must be noted, that this emptiness is not nothingness. Instead, what this emptiness is is the possibility of endless change. Through this emptiness, the boy achieves the ultimate stage of enlightenment.

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The eighth picture, Both the Ox and Ox-Herder are Transcended, from Songnimsa Temple in Daegu.

 9. Reaching the Origin:

In this ninth picture, there is no ox, nor is there a boy; instead, there is only a beautiful pastoral picture. This picture illustrates the scene of the original clear mind (Buddhahood). With this type of mind we see things as they are. Mountains are mountains, and oceans are oceans. At this stage, everything expresses the actual truth of life.

This painting, like the tenth, weren’t originally included in the ten pictures. Instead, the original series ended with the eighth empty circle painting. However, in an effort to eliminate any misunderstanding, which was frequent, the series was expanded to its present ten. The reason why there was so much misunderstanding towards Buddhism’s idea of enlightenment. Like has been explained above, the idea of emptiness, as understood through enlightenment, is not nothingness. Instead, the idea of emptiness allows for the endless possibility of change.

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The ninth picture, Reaching the Origin, is from Eunhaesa Temple near Daegu.

10. In the World (or Return to Society):

In this tenth, and final picture, the ox-herder returns to the village (the world), after years of practicing and perfecting his faith. The ox-herder returns to the world to teach what he has realized to all those that will listen. This last picture depicts the core of Buddhism: freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

10. Okryeonam

The tenth and final picture in the set, In the World, from Okryeonam Hermitage, which is also near Tongdosa Temple. 

In these Ten Ox Herding Pictures (Shim-u-do) we see how we can visually deepen our faith at each illustrated stage. As Buddhism teaches, our lives are filled with suffering; however, through wisdom, we can gain a better understanding of emptiness. And through this understanding of emptiness, we can learn to see things as they actually are, which is an endless possibility of change.