Herding The Ox: A New Year's Parable for Zen Buddhists and Greens

According to the ancient Chinese calender, that is popular all over Asia, 2009 is the year of the ox. This calm and trustworthy animal is a symbol of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. When even the Wall Street Journal follows the lead of Treehugger, and introduces frugal advice for How to Fix Your Life in 2009, it may be a good time to take a moment and heed the wisdom of the ages.

(Image: Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica)Herding the ox is a parable for students of Zen Buddhism. The story draws a parallel between the individual path to enlightenment and the story of the herder and his missing ox. There are 10 stages in the parable, beginning with the search for the ox.

D.T. Suzuki's version is elegant but not easy to understand, even though he called it a Manual, with lovely images of the boy and his ox in a pleasant, unpolluted Chinese valley.


Here we see that the ox's "great will and power" are inexhaustible and that he is capable of a "terrific struggle." When we discover that we are the only source of his energy the "struggle" will be over. Although he is always with you, you can't turn around fast enough to see him. Now you've caught him, he can no longer hide. Still, he seems insubordinate, used to his old ways, searching for new satisfactions while remaining always unsatisfied. You think you can whip him into obedience, yet another illusion!

Image by Kyoto woodblock artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki, comment by I Johnson

Common titles of the pictures in English, and common themes of the prose, include:

1. In Search of the Bull (aimless searching, only the sound of cicadas)
2. Discovery of the Footprints (a path to follow)
3. Perceiving the Bull (but only its rear, not its head)
4. Catching the Bull (a great struggle, the bull repeatedly escapes, discipline required)
5. Taming the Bull (less straying, less discipline, bull becomes gentle and obeyant)
6. Riding the Bull Home (great joy)
7. The Bull Transcended (once home, the bull is forgotten, discipline's whip is idle; stillness)
8. Both Bull and Self Transcended (all forgotten and empty)
9. Reaching the Source (unconcerned with or without; the sound of cicadas)
10. Return to Society (crowded marketplace; spreading enlightenment by mingling with humankind)

But the story also seems to fit with our age, and how we deal with having to live with less, enjoying nature more, and generally trying to find values and ideas that can shape the future. Of course we hope that legislators and bankers will figure out how to fix the global financial system, so we can continue working towards sustainable energy and food solutions. If they can't herd in the Wall Street bull, we will quickly have to find local solutions that work better. At any rate, the year of the ox should be an interesting year here at Treehugger!

More parables:
Tales of Adam
John Lear and the Dark Side
The Roald Dahl Page
Urban Legends

Written by Martin Frid at greenz.jp

Tags: Activism | China | Economics | Japan