The 10 Ox Herding Pictures

This classic series of pictures illustrates the Way toward awakened consciousness. The pictures evolved over many centuries in China and Japan, and were first given their present sequence of 10 stages by Kakuan in the 12th century. The pictures presented here were done by Shubun (d. 1444-1450), and are on display at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto.

The poems were written during a retreat in the Zen temple of Shorin-ji in the mountains north of Kyoto. They are personal reflections, and offered as an invitation to celebrate the sacred bull that waits in the depths of our own hearts.

#1  The Search for the Bull

Bull 1

People drown in a sea of anxiety.  Getting and spending, fearing annihilation, they seek solace in the promise of life after death.  But some few, blessed with wonder and perhaps pain, ask a deeper question: Is there life before death?   And so, following unnamed rivers, passing through gateless gates and climbing pathless mountains, the search begins.

#2  Seeing the Tracks

The traces of Life are everywhere, some clear, some faint.  Teachers abound, books engulf the mind, poetry enlivens the heart. Years are spent following the directions and hints of others.  But finally all teachers and all teachings lead to the Self. The path of life is created by walking.  Return to Silence.

Traces of life are everywhere, some clear, some faint.  Teachers abound, books engulf the mind, poetry enlivens the heart.  Years are spent following the directions and hints of others.  But finally all teachers and teachings lead within.

#3  Perceiving the Bull


Flashes of insight, glimpses of love and peace, moments of joy.  Discovery of sacred places where the veil between the worlds is thin.  But then the bull is lost in the mists of forgetfulness, only to be seen sporadically in the cauldron of life.  But every new glimpse adds clarity and reassurance.

#4  Catching the Bull

Bull 4

Transformation, metanoia, kensho.  One cannot transform what one has not first blessed.  The twin buds of freedom and responsibility begin to blossom.  Life stretches forth in infinite possibility.  But the journey has just begun.  Now that we have the bull, what will we do with it?

#5  Leading the Bull to Pasture

Bull 5

Years of assimilation.  Getting used to a new way of being.  Still forgetting, but warmed with the flame of certain knowing.  Following the deep guidance of the heart, and learning to trust life.  Saying “yes” to what is.  The wobbly, tentative steps of the newly born grow into the confident strides of sacred vitality.

#6  Riding the Bull Home

Bull 6

Control is relinquished.  We follow the flow of life trusting it will lead us on a path with heart.  We ride in beauty, following Rumi’s counsel to let the beauty we love be what we do. The music of our flute sings the songs of our heart.  Now, there is no turning back.

#7  Bull Forgotten, Self Alone

Bull 7

Assimilation is complete.  Living has become so intimate that there is no longer a distinction between the one living and the life lived; between the musician and the music.  There is nothing to search for, nothing to trust, nothing to experience beyond the whispers of our own heart.

#8  Bull Forgotten, Self Forgotten

Bull 8

Body and mind have fallen away. Self-consciousness and self-preoccupation have evaporated like a snowflake in a raging fire.  One dwells at the center of a vast sea of emptiness: warm, nurturing, fecund emptiness.  There is nothing special, nothing holy–but the center holds.

#9  Returning to the Source

 Bull 9

When our hearts rest in stillness, the ten thousand things of this world burst forth in sparkling celebration.  We greet them just as they are: beguiling illusion and overwhelming miracle.  We greet every day with reverence and gratitude.

#10  Living in the world

Bull 10

Unassuming, trapped neither by convention nor bizarre behavior, free of expectations, we wander the earth with Wisdom, Compassion, Equanimity, and Joy.  Our smile heals withered hearts.  We live on the earth fully covered with its dust until we expand into the silence of death.

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