Ox-Herding Pictures and the Enlightenment Process It Tells


Writen by Xuezhi Hu, draft version, to be edited soon

1. The Preface
2. Ode to Ox-Herding Pictures: Part One
3. Ord to Ox-Herding Pictures: Part Two

The Preface
The Ox-herding Chart of Chan Buddhism was once translated into English and enjoyed lot of attention and study from Western readers. The poem in company was written in traditional Chinese and unfortunately, many readers in mailand China may face some difficulty in understanding the meaning due to their less study on traditional Chinese literature. Nonetheless, such pictures seem to gain much more popularity in American and Japan than mainland China since most mainland Chinese people seldom have the chance to hear of it being used or mentioned by mainland Buddhists from Chan Buddhism.


Several years ago I read martial arts novel (titled like “smash emptiness into pieces”) written by Mr. Huang Yi, and the author uses lot of the poem from the Ox-herding Chart to describe how the protagonist of the novel, in his study to achieve immortality, gains progress one step after another in the field. But in terms of the achievement the protagonist gained there are merely words on the nature of mind and immediate enlightenment being unstintingly leashed out, not in the least there are words in relation to regulation of breathing and Chi deployment. In inner alchemy practice (immortality study), it should be termed as ‘talks concerning only mercury yet without lead." You can easily come to the conclusion that the author is only the poet or literature scholar in Wei and Jin Dynasty who had interest merely in fabricating metaphysics and mythical stories, by borrowing more elements from Chan literature.


But in detailed reading and contemplation of the chart as well as the poem, I suddenly gained an impression that this chart bears a lot of similarity with the practical process of inner alchemy practice (immortality study). Perhaps some Buddhists or scholars from Chan Buddhism may refute me, but after many days of meditation I seem to have more confidence to support my own assertion.


You know what, I suddenly understand the chart simply becomes an illustration depicting immortality-accomplishing sequence, with different symbols specific to each stage. Yes, for Chan Buddhism, there is Chan poetry, for immortality practice there is NeiDan (Taoist inner alchemy) poetry, Chan poetry is often characterized by the subtlety of a full moon locating well beyond the pointing fingers, whereas NeiDan poems much often feature highly metaphorical artistic conception which lies between that can be perceived or that totally beyond perception whatsoever.


Immortality study do not talk about immediate enlightenment, nor the assertion like “All things being produced by causes and accessory conditions have no reality”, nor the words like “become an immortality immediately”, yet such study can lead up to the success from the beginning without any necessary step left out, though its gradual and progressive manner seem to possess no much attraction to practitioners from Chan Buddhism, though it is really a super-straight ladder.

Although the Chan Buddhism often talks about immediate enlightenment, and the thorough attainment without the least hindrance, but it does not mean the free of any efforts to be done before or after the attainment, otherwise Huineng (the sixth patriach) would not have to do the milling work for nine months before his attainment, and thereafter ran to join a hunter team for practice which lasts nineteen years. Later on when he started to offer teaching course, you know what, what he taught at beginning is the chanting "Prajna Paramita (reaching the other shore)". Chan Buddhism, to tell the truth, is to attain the state of mutual affinity between teachers and disciples, while for immortality study it lies upon the infusion by Yang Qi from varying levels. Both, in essence, lie well beyond the spoken and written language in terms of the authentic knacks they concern.


The Chan study and its subtlety lie upon Chan’s allegoric meaning or understanding gained in an instant which features something rational, yet leaving no any outlets for admitting in speculation in any form. Only mutual affinity can bring about the allegoric meaning being perceived instantly which mostly arises from the attained views “all things being produced by causes and accessory conditions have no reality”, and “mind remains unimpeded whatever.”


Taoist immortality study, however, has its subtlety lying upon the Mysterious Pass which serves as the only communication channel connecting both the Pre-heaven and Post-heaven domains. Mysterious Pass lies neither within corporeal body nor outside the physical body, neither within interior nor exterior. It presents itself only when the interior resonates with the exterior, and the natural corresponds to the artificial on the condition that both Shen and Chi become sufficient. We can apply the example of love story to demonstrate the state: the love feeling between a girl and a boy arises mostly in a spontaneous way, and most people know love cannot be forced. Similarly, both emptiness and the naturalness, though both in varying evidence, begin to meet in harmony and communicate with each other in the instance.


Perhaps, you may ask, immortality study and Chan Buddhism can meet at one place and thoroughfare with each other with no obstacles whatever? Lets read the following passage which is the excerpt from Chuang Tzu, and titled “the fasting of mind”: (translated by Victor H. Mair)

“I have nothing further to propose,” said Yen Hui. “I venture to ask you for a method.”

“Fasting,” said Confucius. “I shall explain it for you. If you do things with your mind, do you think it will be easy? Bright heaven will not approve one who thinks it will be easy.”

“My family is poor,” said Yen Hui, “and it’s been several months since I’ve drunk wine or tasted meat. May this be considered fasting?”

“This is fasting suitable for sacrifices, but it is not fasting of the mind.”

“I venture to ask what ‘fasting of the mind’ is,” said Hui.

"Concentrate your mind-will. Hear not with your ears, but with your mind; not with your mind, but with your Chi. Let your hearing stop with the ears, and let your mind stop with natural concordance. Chi, however, is vacuous and empty, accommodating all. There is none but Tao who dwells in the empty vacuity. And becoming empty and vacuous is the fasting of the mind."

“Before I am able to exercise fasting of the mind,” said Yen Hui, “I truly have an identity. But after I am able to exercise it, I will no longer have an identity. Can this be called emptiness?”

"Exactly so!" replied the master. "Let me tell you. Enter and roam about this realm, but without any awareness of what the realm is. In the event of arrival in it sing in concert with it; in case of no arrival in it stop at the cessation. Let the door open and close, by its own course. House all as an undivided whole and lodge in that which takes the course all in its natural way. Then you are close to it. To leave no footprints is easy; to walk on no ground is difficult.

“If you are impelled by human feelings, it is easy to be false; if you are impelled by nature, it is hard to be false. I’ve only heard of creatures that fly with wings, never of creatures that fly with nonwings. I’ve only heard of people knowing things through awareness, never of people knowing things through unawareness. Observe the void – the empty room emits a pure light. Good fortune lies in stopping when it is time to stop. If you do not stop, this is called ‘galloping while sitting.’ Let your senses communicate within and rid yourself of the machinations of the mind. Then even ghosts and spirits will take shelter with you, not to mention men. This is how the myriad things are transformed. It is that to which Yao and Shun bound themselves, and that which Fuhsi and Chich’u exercised all their lives. All the more is it suited for the masses.”

The famous inner alchemist Chen Yingning once wrote 24 pieces of NeiDan poetry, here we choose several for appreciation:

The first is as follows:

Ultimate reality is shining forth over all grains of sand along Ganges River,
The worldly and the sagely, together with the enlightened all share one common source originally.
All present themselves in full aspects whenever there is none idea arising,
Cloud, however, already has been overshadowing once in motion even one least sense.

Rid of all affliction for what? The addition of illness!
Come close to the true thusness for what? A diverging path there emerges!
Meekly follow the predestined relationship as it arises to make the mind remain unimpeded, for what?
Nirvā?a as well as birth and death are but that equal to hollow flowers in air.

The last poem runs as below:

Knock out the emptiness to rid of accumulation of kalpa which lasts billion years,
Well bye the canoe who carried us ashore in opposite!
To finish perusing almost all volumes of immortality books and works, yet finally understand the last words have not heard of from all authors’ mouth.

Actually, what are the last words? Could not be spoken out or the author would not like to say? The answer Chen Yingning gave is the author dare not to say because it may frighten all audience. What are they after all? Lets come to watch the figures and read the poem.