Oxherding Interlude

What remains when all falls away? How do we remaining standing? Just as the Earth supports the clouds, the clouds hold up the entire cosmos, but no effort is ever needed.

I will write next time about the next Oxherding picture, but for now, I wanted to simply write about how wonderful life can be, even when things seem stacked up against you. Today has not been a particularly good day. I woke up very tired, as I did not sleep well, nor long enough… ‘Is it morning already?!.. ugh! I am still too tired!’ Then I had to hurry to get everything ready for work and was fairly rushed out the door. Then after a long commute, I started my work day… which was busy busy busy.. Lots to do and not enough time, and not sure where to start!

I have recently been keeping in my mind an utterance from the extremely clear-minded and wise woman, Pema Chodron, a Buddhist Nun. It is also the title of a book of hers, and it is: “Start Where You Are”. How wonderful! How perfect for a cluttered mind! How simple yet profound… Where else to start?! Right here, right now…

Writing this reminds me of a story I have read… It tells of the Buddha’s life and how a drunk man stumbled upon (quite literally!) one of the Buddha’s discourses… Many of the people listening wanted the man removed.. He was a disgrace and should not be there.. But the Buddha said he should stay, and it doesn’t matter if one hears the truth of the Dharma whilst drunk or not drunk,.. if the heart-mind is listening, it hears the Dharma clearly, drunk or not! So, this drunk person started right where he was! So, no matter how depressed, drunk, ill, or happy, elated or rich you are, just start where you are!

So, after hours of near frantic work, it appears I got nothing of substance actually done, just filling in time cards, expense claims, booking out work cars for visits to customers, getting visit times and dates booked… but no reports written, no visits attended…nothing much to show for all that time ‘working’! It was frustrating. Then various other personal issues arose that I won’t get into and these too made for a bad and a sad day.. Then, as I was to leave work, I found out that my long commute home would be very long as part of the road was blocked from an accident, and another road along my route was also partly blocked from a fuel spillage… So i stayed late at work, got more work done and waited for the traffic to clear (Where would I be without travel reports on the internet!)..

Finally, I started my journey home, and the traffic was still very bad, and it took a long time to get home… But something happened during my drive… I was happy… I felt genuine happiness inside me, although my surface mind and heart felt sad, I felt this melting from within and all the sadness, it fell away. I felt so very lucky.. I was driving home to my amazing wife and our wonderful little boy… What more could I want? Life can always be worse, it can always be much, much, worse… equally so, it can always be better, much , much better…. But, really, that’s all subjective.. that is ego-mind, and it all doesn’t matter… Every bad situation will always fade away, and every good situation does the same… so what remains behind? What is left standing to hold us when we are down and to ground us when we are high?

Deep faith. Knowing the Universe has our back. It is always on our side. Our Enlightened nature is always within a nose hair from us, yet forever far away. When we have tamed our Ox, we then will ride our Ox home, which will led me to next time, my next post… Riding the Ox Back Home…

Oxherding IV & V Catching and Herding the Ox

Attributed to Shubun. Photo taken from Zen Ink Paintings by Barnet and Burto

When we surround our inherent Enlightened nature with our entire being, we have captured the Ox. Our Ox is still a wild being and we do not yet fully understand how to contain him. Catching the Ox can be tricky, and we may struggle to keep him under our control. Our concepts of Enlightenment start to fade at this stage, as we are now face to face with our Ox. His pure eyes are wild but their depth falls forever into our hearts. Each time we gaze into his eyes, we are stunned by their beauty, their complexity within utter stillness and simplicity. We try to comprehend this paradox, and when we do, our eyes’ gaze follows our thinking mind and the Ox kicks and bucks and tries to escape.

Attributed to Shubun. Photo taken from Zen Ink Paintings by Barnet and Burto

After we finally have our rope around the Ox and our grip is secure, so secure that our arm will be ripped off and given to Bodhidharma* should the Ox escape, we can then start to tame the Ox. Herding our Ox involves great discipline, and we learn how to react when our Ox misbehaves. It is really ourselves who do not behave properly and our Ox reminds us of this. Our discipline and faith allow us to keep our eyes always fixed onto our Ox’s eyes. We realize we are the same being, and this explodes into such love and compassion that Our Ox needs no rope to hold him anymore.

*a student studying under the first Ch’an (Zen) master in China, Bodhidharma, offered his arm to him to be shown Enlightenment. This shows the student’s commitment and understanding how important realizing our Enlightened nature truly is. This story might appear in a future post to give it proper context and explanation. 

Oxherding III – Seeing the Ox

Attributed to Shubun. Photo taken from Zen Ink Paintings by Barnet and Burto

Last time, I talked about how a person can see evidence of their inherent buddha nature, feeling in their heart something deep inside, something pure and correct. This feeling, we know in our hearts is true, yet we have no proof in our minds. So, we are of a divided being, our hearts say ‘truth’ yet our minds say ‘prove it!’

This is the foundation of faith. Faith is knowing something in our hearts, feeling its truth, yet we can not prove this truth. But this truth in our hearts, it is not fully clarified..we do not yet fully understand what it is we know to be true! This is why we can not yet have proof.

Our faith, our trust in our own heart, our own buddha-nature, drives us, supports us, and helps us on our search for the Ox. In the third picture of the Ten Oxherding Pictures, we come to ‘Seeing the Ox’.

Here, after a long journey in the darkest of wilderness, using our faith as our compass, we trace the residues left behind of our true nature… We have our gaze only on the tracks on the ground, and we reach a point where we pause and look close and the tracks are still warm from the hoofs of the Ox… we glance up and we see the rump of the mighty Ox as it disappears behind a giant boulder on our path ahead. We become frozen. Utter fascination. Utter joy. Utter reverence. Utter awe. Many many joyous and powerful emotions explode in our mind, with the most amazing Love surrounding them all.

We are in shock. All these feelings and emotions turn into thoughts in our brains. Oh, the thoughts attack our heart and mind… ‘What was that?!’ WOW! That was .. that was…. ‘  and we realize the Ox has run away… We no longer see him…

Okay, we must put our heads down, follow his tracks again and find this Ox, and we do, with our deep faith now firmly rooted, we will see our Ox again, and we do and soon he is always within our sight.

Realizing the utmost beauty and love this Ox emanates, we can’t keep our focus off of it anymore, and we find our frantic chase has changed into a steady, determined gait. The Ox seems to beckon us, it keeps turning his head towards us and our eyes meet, yet it remains wild and still is moving away from us. With our deep faith and determined practice, we soon find we are right next to the Ox, ready to start herding him.. This leads us to the next picture, ‘Catching the Ox’, which I will talk about next time… Hope to see you then!

Oxherding II.. Seeing the Tracks

Ox tracks in snow (not my own image)

Last time, I talked about the first of the ten Oxherding pictures. This is where a human becomes so lost in this world, so confused and suffering that certain questions will simply not leave their heart and mind… You know, the ‘big’ questions.. Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Everybody asks these questions at some point in their lives, but only when they will not stop nagging you, when they won’t leave, does our spiritual quest begin in earnest. Usually, when these questions will not leave, they are actually painful, we are suffering due to our deep confusion of what is happening in this world, in our mind and heart. With these questions strangling our normal grip on reality, we naturally seek a way to end this suffering, to end this confusion, and this leads us to the second Oxherding picture .. ‘Seeing the Tracks’.

When we question ourselves, in the utmost and honest manner, the tracks of the Ox present themselves before us, regardless if we call ourselves Buddhist or not. Truth is truth, and bears no name. Since the Ox represents our Buddha nature, seeing evidence of its existence confirms in our heart-mind that our questioning is bearing fruit. We have a clue! A path to follow. Just as a hunter tracks an animal’s footprints, we see the tracks of our Ox. We may not yet see the Ox, but we can feel in our heart that it exists. This realisation provides the motivation to continue practicing, to keep questioning, and in Zen or Ch’an, this involves to keep meditating, to practice Zazen meditation. We feel the mind calming and, like an infant curling up in its mothers arms, we feel safe and comforted, we know in our hearts that this is correct.

Attributed to Shubun. Photo taken from Zen Ink Paintings by Barnet and Burto.

In my experience, seeing the tracks usually involves the Universe coming to our aid, after all it loves us beyond compare. I call this ‘creating our own luck’. Before I knew about Buddhism many years ago, I firmly believed that we create our own luck. As the saying goes, chance favours the prepared mind. I think this is saying the same thing, more or less. When we are brutally honest with ourselves, and seek Truth, the Universes unfolding seems to join our quest… it ‘has our back’!

The more we practice, the clearer the track become, and the tracks become fresh and we can sense the Ox is close, so we persevere, and have deep faith that the Ox will be seen. Sometimes, however, we lose sight of the tracks and we can become discouraged. We must remind ourselves during these times that we have seen them before, we know something made those tracks, so we must feel the faith we had before. We remember our Universe friend, it was walking beside us, seeing the tracks too, and it will always try its best to help us. Sometimes we are blind to its help, sometimes its help feels like the opposite. At these times we must have faith. Faith is nothing but truth we have no proof of. But honest truth… We know something is happening, something is making those tracks, and that’s all the truth, all the faith we need. As Einstein once said… “There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge but can never prove how it got there.”

This takes us to the next Oxherding picture… ‘Seeing the Ox’…. I will talk about this in my next post… See you next time!


Attributed to Shubun. Photo taken from Zen Ink Paintings by Barnet and Burto.

Why the name ‘oxherderzen’?

Well, the zen part is easy. I am a Zen Buddhist.

So, what is an oxherder? It refers to a set of teaching pictures, the Ten Oxherding Pictures. In Zen, words are clearly seen to be, in most circumstances, a hindrance to our realization of our true nature. So, in the past, a set of pictures were drawn/painted to help replace the need for words to teach the Way. Now, be careful… they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so perhaps the pictures are a thousand times more dangerous than the text it replaces!

Today I will discuss the 1st oxherding picture.. ‘Seeking the Ox’… perhaps a more apt title would be ‘This world is confusing!’. In this picture, a human is lost in our world, unable to make any sense of what is happening around them. They are suffering and want to stop their confusion, to stop their suffering. They look all around and it just doesn’t make sense, their world simply doesn’t add up.

This is the state of many many people in the world today. They live each day as it comes, even making plans for the future, but they don’t ever fully understand who they are. Their true nature is lost amongst the confusion of the modern world.

This is a crucial stage, as it is in this state of ignorance that we find our determination to figure this all out! We finally can not let go of the burning questions in our gut… ‘What is going on?’ ‘Why am I suffering?’ ‘Who am I?’ Everybody asks these questions from time to time, but it is only when the questions take refuge in our heart and will not leave, that we can start our journey properly.

So why is this picture called ‘Seeking the Ox’? The Ox in the Orient, back in the past when these pictures were created, was a very special animal. It could be the difference between life and death, as it supplied milk and strength to plow and to carry. The Ox is a symbol of Buddha-nature.

This leads us to the next picture ‘Seeing the Tracks’… and I will talk about this next time.

Google Gorn!

(not my own image)

Yesterday i wrote a post that used an old Star Trek episode to illustrate how we have all the tools we need to realise our true nature, no matter how difficult our lives may be…. even perhaps that the more difficult our lives are, the better tools we actually have…

In the post, the reference was about a ‘gorn’, a lizard-man type creature. Later that night, last night, I noticed that George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek) posted on Facebook a link to Google. Google was honoring the 46th anniversary of Star Trek with a special Google home page. Each letter in Google was a Star Trek character and I clicked on the logo, and I got transported to the teleportation room and clicked again and then got beamed to a planet with the gorn who got blasted with the diamond gun!

How likely was this to happen? This was serendipitous! It made me think about my other recent experience of serendipity... The Universe is vast and amazing and I smiled as such when I saw the google gorn!

Captain Kirk Zen

A still from Star Trek (Not my own photograph)

Sometimes life gets so complicated and busy and difficult and trying and expensive and depressing and, well, just plain overwhelming, that it seems impossible that we have the correct situation in which to realize our inherent Enlightened nature.

It is easy to think ‘only when I am a bit more stable in my hectic life will I be able to have the time to sit and meditate, and then possibly have a satori experience’ (Satori is, in simple terms, a mini-enlightenment experience, though I hesitate to imply that there are gradations of enlightenment.. I will talk briefly about this later on…)

In Zen, a bad situation (ie. a complicated and overwhelming life) is actually is a good situation. This is a great teacher. It can encourage our practice and increase our determination. Of course, a bad situation has the power to drag us down into a pit of despair and inaction and decay. So be careful! Very careful! A bad situation can also be seen as the repayment of some karmic debt. Karma means action.

Every action we have, which includes our thoughts (as these are the actions of our minds), has an effect on the entire Universe. The largest effect, of course, occurs with the things and beings directly impinged by an action. If I rescue a slug on a hot sidewalk, this has a huge effect on that slug, however, the effect on the planet Saturn is, well, probably not perceptible. Probably. But not definitely. And it definitely has an effect, though it just not be able to be seen. (I suppose the way to explain this in scientific terms is with the butterfly effect (This is a part of Chaos theory I believe, and sorta goes like this: A butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can create minor wind turbulence that eventually, over time, creates the conditions to create a hurricane, a hurricane that would not have existed if that one sole butterfly didn’t flap its wings)). So, my saving a slug has a very real effect on Saturn. Could I possibly measure that effect? Probably not! So our karma, our actions, are very very far-reaching! They are very powerful. One reason suffering exists is the result of people riding the tidal wave of their past karma… it can feel insurmountable. Our physical brains are like this too. We can re-wire our neural connections in our brains, but years and years or doing the same things over and over creates pathways, canyons… exactly like how rain hits the ground and gravity takes it to the sea… it follows an easy path and the more water flows, the deeper that path becomes, the more entreated it becomes and then a deep river is born. Changing out thought patterns is like trying to change the course of a river! That can seem impossible! Strategy is the key. A plan of attack, if you will. In nature, a powerful river can change its path overnight. It is rare, but it happens. An earthquake hits and … BOOM! The water has found an entirely new way to find the ocean. Rivers can also change slowly, and if we keep tending to our brain-river, we can slowly change its course over time. Our physical brains are wired like this. You often hear things like ‘He can’t change, he’s hard-wired that way’ or ‘I can’t change, I am just wired that way’ While it may be true that we have particular wiring structures that we have been born with, we also have all the tools we need to change the way we think. This reminds me of a classic Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk is placed on a planet with a Lizard-man creature to battle it out until the death. Kirk was physically weaker and no match for the creature. But the strange aliens beings who arranged this battle told Kirk he had all the means in which to win, so he thought about this information… and he had faith it was true. Once he accepted its truth, he began to seek the solution. He realised there was, I believe, flammable materials, hard cylindrical tubes, and diamonds…. He used the tube as a rifle, the flammable stuff as gunpowder and the diamonds as bullets. He found his solution!

Life is like this. Good situation or bad situation… they both supply us with all we need. Remember the Universe has deep unbounded love for us. It is rooting for us to win! It is on our side. Don’t fight it, accept it, embrace it, love it, and then we begin to see the diamonds, and we see them shoot straight into our heart-minds, into our Buddha-minds!

Back to the repayment of karmic debt: Since all our actions have an effect, we are bound by our actions. In the past, we may have done something that we know was wrong to do. Maybe we hurt someone, or even ourselves. This action in the past will resonate its effect always and everywhere. Sounds heavy and depressing! But, the Universe sometimes bounces the ball back to our court, so to speak, and we have another try. Sometimes, that next attempt we are given is very painful, as we must absorb the suffering we created in the past. This is repaying karmic debt. So, when something horrible happens to us, we can be thankful on one level, as we can see how this ends some vibrating suffering throughout the world. Just like a hand covering a vibrating bell stops its noise, repayment of a karmic debt stops the vibrations of the suffering noise. The scientific part of my brain finds this hard to accept, it sorta implies the Universe is a planner, and orchestrator, even after I realise the butterfly effect is real. It is still is hard to accept. However, the holistic part of my heart-brain feels its deep truth, its complex yet simple, unhindered motion.

I said earlier that satori is sorta like a mini-enlightenment experience. It can certainly be seen that different levels of depth of awakening may be realized. It can be thought of like when we awake from sleeping in the morning… Sometimes we may wake up slowly, and be groggy for a while, perhaps until the morning coffee kicks in! Other times we wake up instantly, eyes wide open.. Bam! ‘Okay I’m awake now!’ Either way, once awake, we are awake, are we not?

Midnight Blue

Midnight blue…. (This is not one of my own photographs)

We all get asked what our favorite color is. This happens most often as a child, though it still gets asked as an adult from time to time. Mine always seemed to change. Green was frequently my favorite, but i did go through times when other colors, like deep intense orange was my color of choice.

Today, the color that seems to have the most power over me is midnight blue. The color of the night sky just before it goes all black, when there is still some of the Sun’s photons bouncing around the air above me. The moon may be shining, and most stars are out. Then all is surrounded by this incredibly darkest of dark blue… it looks black until you realize it is almost glowing, this underlying blue, almost purple…so very intense and, for me, awe-inspiring.

I remember my brother once telling me that certain colors sometimes can manifest very strong emotional responses in him. I think this may be a mild form of some brain chemistry wiring that allows for colors to become ’emotional’. Some people have conditions that enable them to ‘see’ sounds as colors and hear ‘colors’ as musical notes.. This reminds me of an interview I heard once. I forgot who was being interviewed but he was talking about his childhood and that in the theater the lights would go dim and the orchestra would start playing. He saw intense colors when the music was played. He thought the lights were dimmed so everyone could see the music! Okay, i am a bit sidetracked here, but this little excursion illustrates the nature of what ‘reality’ actually is. Say only about 0.001% of humans ‘see’ sounds… Society would say that these 0.001% of people have a disorder, they are not experiencing reality properly. What happens when we increase that percentage to 1%? 25%? What happens at 50%?! We do not say that all women have a reality disorder because they are not men! So, what is ‘real’?

In Zen, seeing clearly what is, is very important. Who is to say what is clear sight then? the 99.999%? The Enlightened beings? Who? The answer is, well, crystal clear.

So, back to color. I am reminded of a story my high school math teacher told the class. His friend asked him what his favorite music was and he replied ‘whatever I am listening to must be my favorite of that moment or why would I have chosen it otherwise?’

It was a simple story but for me it resonated and was the most important lesson I learned from that class (even though i loved that pre-calculus class!), I learned that picking your own personal favorites, whether music, colors, foods, people or whatever, and being loyal to those favorites is actually being unloyal to your own experiences, It restricts you from finding new favorites and it binds you.

My favorite color? They all have a different place in my heart. Sometimes my heart is happy and loves yellow, sometimes it is reflective and loves midnight blue. Sometimes my heart feels clear and loves white. So can i actually have a favorite? I don’t know. When i see midnight blue, however, something intensely powerful happens in my gut. I feel as though I am absorbing the cosmos into me and seeing secrets held billions of miles away. It feels like I am experiencing the pumping blood of the Universe pulsing through my heart-mind and, if it wanted to, could easily overpower me. I am left in awe, and in deep respect. It is the Universe perceiving itself, always.