Ten Verses on Oxherding


Not on view

In Zen, a herdboy’s search for his lost oxen has served as a parable for a practitioner’s pursuit of enlightenment since this Buddhist sect’s early history in China. In the eleventh century, the Song-dynasty Zen master Guoan Shiyuan (active ca. 1150) codified the parable into ten verses (gāthā), recorded and illustrated in this handscroll. The parable proceeds from the herdboy losing his ox and following its tracks to recover the animal to, in the next-to-last verse, transcending this world. In a final stage representing the attainment of Buddhist enlightenment, the herdboy becomes one with Budai (Japanese: Hotei), the manifestation of the future Buddha Miroku (Sanskrit: Maitreya). Dated by an inscription to 1278, the present scroll is the earliest known Japanese illustrated copy of the parable and the only extant version with color illustrations.

One aimlessly pushes the grasses
aside in search.
The rivers are wide,
the mountains far away,
and the path becomes longer.
Exhausted and dispirited,
one hears only the late autumn cicadas
shrilling in the maple woods.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

By the water, and under the trees,
there are numerous traces.
Fragrant grasses grow thickly,
but did you see the ox?
Even in the depths
of the distant mountain forest,
How could the upturned nostrils
of the ox be concealed?
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

A bush warbler sings upon a branch,
warm sun, soft breezes,
green willows on the bank.
Nowhere can the ox escape to hide,
but those majestic horns
are difficult to draw.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

With all my energy,
I seize the ox.
His will is strong, and his power endless,
and he cannot be tamed easily.
Sometimes he charges
to the high plateau.
And there he stays,
deep in the mist.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

One does not let go of the whip or the rope,
afraid it will stray
and choose the dusty mist.
A well-tended ox becomes gentle,
and even with no rope,
Will follow people
by himself.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

Riding the bull, I leisurely
wander toward home.
Exotic flute melodies echo
through sunset clouds.
Each beat and each tune
is indescribably profound.
No words are needed for those
who understand music.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

Riding on the ox,
he has come home.
There is no ox there,
and he is at ease.
Although the sun is high,
he is still dreamy.
The whip and rope abandoned
in the thatched hut.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

Whip, rope, man, and ox,
all are non-existent.
The blue sky being vast,
no message can be heard,
Just as the snowflake cannot last
in the flaming red furnace.
After this state, one can join
the ancient teachers.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

In returning to the fundamentals
and going back to the source,
I had to work so hard.
Perhaps it would be better
to be blind and deaf.
Being in the hut,
I do not see what is outside.
The river flowing tranquilly,
the flower simply being red.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

He enters the city barefoot,
with chest exposed.
Covered in dust and ashes,
smiling broadly.
No need for the magic powers
of the gods and immortals.
Just let the dead tree bloom again.
—Trans. Gen Sakamoto

Ten Verses on Oxherding, Handscroll; ink and color on paper, Japan

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