The 12th century Zen master of the Sung Dynasty known as Kaku-an Shi-en (Kuo-an Shih-yuan) who belonged to the Rinzai school of Buddhism, executed a series of ten pictures depicting a herdsman searching for, catching and gentling a bull (often also translated as an Ox). These pictures are now lost but a 15th-century Japanese monk, Shubun, made what are said to be exact copies of the Kaku-an pictures, and the Shubun pictures are preserved in the Shokoku-ji monastery in Kyoto. These pictures have always been a treasured teaching analogy, depicting our spiritual journey as we follow the Buddha’s path. The pictures and a commentary by Master Otsu were translated from the German Buchner version by M H Trevor in 1969 and since then other commentaries have appeared. Originally titled ‘The Ox and His Herdsman’, the pictures have now been published by the Zen Centre under the title. ‘Gentling the Bull’. This version given here includes the commentary by our own dear teacher Daiyu Myokyo Zenji and when studied and understood forms a complete manual of Zen training.
The Bull or Ox is, of course, our very own heart-bull, that wild and uncontrolled emotional side to our nature. It is the three fires of desire, aversion and delusion, whose fierce heat and emotional energy takes us over, unawares, and which can be so destructive of our wholeness and true humanity. The ten pictures each depict a stage in our spiritual development, from our rather vague feeling of unease, through our casting about for an answer to our internal problem, our unrest, to the stage where we are at ease with ourselves and all that surrounds us. The pictures follow the following sequence:
Searching for the Bull
In the middle of a landscape a man stands, hesitant, his feet facing one way, his head turned in another direction. He stands on the spot most of us occupy.
Around us, the landscape of our lives, in our hearts, uncertainty. Snared in delusion, trapped in the midst of good and bad, aware of an inner feeling, not well defined, that all is not as it should be. Where to go, this way or that?
Finding the Traces
The man has perhaps heard or read, the teachings. In his innermost heart, he recognises the need to change direction. He has heard of the Heart-Bull, the fearsome inner emotional power that controls us all unless we can gentle it.
Pondering the enigma, on the periphery of his vision he catches glimpses of his problem. The signs of the Heart-Bull are there, but intellectual acceptance is not enough!! He must set out on the path to find the Bull and learn to control its wayward behaviour.
In the picture, the man in his landscape finds the footprints, traces, of the Bull. Of course, the Bull has always been there, and it is only our own blindness that prevents us from seeing him.