Oxherding: Sutra vs Vajra

The diagram above is one of the traditional Nyingma classifications of the different Buddhisms — I added Bön for completeness.  You can see the more expanded Nyingma 9-path taxonomy here.  But in this diagram, the Buddhisms above the blue dotted-line are “vehicles” (or “approaches” or “paths”) while those named below the blue dotted-line are “schools” (or “sects”).  Schools tend to identify with one approach more than another thus vehicles and schools are sometime interchanged. In this scheme, the two large divisions here are Sutrayana and Vajrayana.  In this post, I hope to illustrate how the Sutra vehicle and the Vajra vehicle can have different interpretations of similar Buddhist images.

Though Buddhism comes in many flavors, often Buddhists will discuss Buddhism as if there really were only one real version of Buddhism either blurring the distinctions or intentionally ignoring the other traditions.  But the differences between the versions are important and should not be blurred or ignored.  The practices and thoughts in these traditions offer potentially very different consequences for practitioners.  And though each Buddhist path may use similar words for key doctrines and use similar images, they often interpret these in very different ways.

Below I use the famous Ten Ox Herding picture series to illustrate this phenomena.  Of course the picture series is not a Buddhist doctrine, but they have become popular in the West and it is not surprising that different schools use them to promote their version of Buddhism.  Nothing is wrong with that, of course, but I thought it would be interesting to show an example of two different interpretations to both illustrate the phenomena and to contrast these two different Buddhist paths.

The Ox Herder series (wiki) was first drawn by Chán master Kuòān Shīyuǎn in the 1100s AD to illustrate the Mahayana practitioner’s path to enlightenment.  But the picture series is so popular I can see why non-Mahayana folks would use it to discuss their flavor of Buddhism.

Below are interpretations from two different traditions.  The series on the left appears to me to resonate with the Sutrayana vehicle — you can see the source of the pictures here at the excellent site called Buddhanet — please visit it to learn much more.  Let me know if you agree that this is a Sutrayana interpretation?  Though I think a classic Sutrayana interpretation would end at the eighth picture — emptiness.  From my limited understanding, this story version seems to reinterpret the last two pics in a way consistent with Sutrayana.

In contrast, the series on the right is Vajrayana as colorfully interpreted by the late Vajra Master Chögyam Trungpa (I borrowed it from the excellent Shambhala site — please visit their site to learn much more).

The Buddhanet introduction to the Oxherder series is as follows:

The Ten Oxherding Pictures which relate back to a Ch’an master in the Sung dynasty China (1126-1279 AD), have spiritual roots in the early Buddhist texts. They provide useful imagery of an illusion to be negated before a seeker of truth can experience enlightenment. The ox symbolize the mind and the herder symbolizes the seeker. A graphic designer, Hor Tuck Loon has given these pictures a contemporary treatment.

Chögyam Trungpa’s introduction is here:

I have decided to include the ten oxherding pictures, a well-known Zen representation of training of the mind, so basic that it could be considered fundamental to all schools of Buddhism. A deeper way of looking at it is in terms of spiritual development from Shravakayana to Maha Ati. In the Tibetan tradition there is an analogy of elephant herding but it refers largely only to the practice of shamatha. The symbolism does not go beyond the riding of the elephant. In the oxherding pictures the evolutionary process of taming the bull is very close to the Vajrayana view of the transmutation of energy. Particularly returning to the world as the expression of the compassion of the Nirmanakaya shows that the final realization of Zen automatically leads to the wisdom of Maha Ati.
— Chögyam Trungpa

I hope you enjoy comparing and contrasting these two interpretations. The web has dozens of other Oxherder interpretations and drawings. I thought you’d enjoy these two. Let me know your thoughts.

1. Seeking the Ox

The herder first embarking on a spiritual journey is unaware that the true nature of the mind cannot be found by maintaining a dualistic view of the world.  The result is confusion and disillusionment.

1. The Search for the Bull

The inspiration for this first step, which is searching for the bull, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego’s attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.

2 Finding the Tracks

Though the ox is not seen or found, the presence of tracks increases the herder’s confidence that it exists.  The tracks represent phenomena and the erratic nature of the mind.

2 Discovering the Footprints

By understanding the origin you find the possibility of transcending this pain. This is the perception of the Four Noble Truths. You see that pain results from the conflicts created by ego and discover the footprints of the bull, which are the heavy marks of ego in all play of events. You are inspired by unmistakable and logical conclusions rather than by blind faith. This corresponds to the Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana paths.

3 First Glimpse of the Ox

The path to enlightenment has been glimpsed but much practice is needed to keep it in ful view.  Transcendence of the subject and the object is now known by direct experience.  Past thought patterns become painfully apparent.

3 Perceiving the Bull

You are startled at perceiving the bull and then, because there is no longer any mystery, you wonder if it is really there; you perceive its insubstantial quality. When you begin to accept this perception of non-duality, you relax, because you no longer have to defend the existence of your ego. Then you can afford to be open and generous. You begin to see another way of dealing with your projections and that is joy in itself, the first spiritual level of the attainment of the Bodhisattva.

4. Catching the Ox

The herder has caught the ox but finds it hard to tame.  The mind wanders and gets uptight when the seeker does not have expert control over it.

4. Catching the Bull

Seeing a glimpse of the bull, you find that generosity and discipline are not enough in dealing with your projections, because you have yet to completely transcend aggression. You have to acknowledge the precision of skilful means and the simplicity of seeing things as they are, as connected to fully developed compassion. The subjugation of aggression cannot be exercised in a dualistic framework – complete commitment into the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva is required, which is the development of patience and energy.

5. Taming the Ox

Advanced practice makes the herder more at ease with his or her true nature.  The ox though still unruly, puts up no resistance to the persevering herder.  Consciousness thus goes beyond the ordinary thinking mind.

5. Taming the Bull

Once caught, the taming of the bull is achieved by the precision of meditative panoramic awareness and the sharp whip of transcendent knowledge. The Bodhisattva has accomplished the transcendent acts (paramitas) – not dwelling on anything.

6. Riding the Ox Home

The struggle is over. The ox and the herder move in one direction effortlessly but the illusion of the subject and the object still persist.

6. Riding the Bull Home

There is no longer any question of search. The bull (mind) finally obeys the master and becomes creative activity. This is the breakthrough to the state of enlightenment – the Vajra-like samadhi of the Eleventh Bhumi. With the unfolding of the experience of Mahamudra, the luminosity and colour of the mandala become the music which leads the bull home.

7. Ox Forgotten, Self Alone

The subject and the object now become one.  Duality is transcended but practice continues.  The seeker having learnt to let go of everything no longer has worldly attachments.

7. The Bull Transcended

Even that joy and colour becomes irrelevant. The Mahamudra mandala of symbols and energies dissolves into Maha Ati through the total absence of the idea of experience. There is no more bull. The crazy wisdom has become more and more apparent and you totally abandon the ambition to manipulate.

8. Both Ox and Self Forgoten

The illusion of reality being separate from the mind is shattered.  Enlightenment as an unconditioned state of mind is experienced.  The mind has escaped from the trap of opinions and views.  Drawing a picture would be a contradiction of ‘no thing’.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

This is the absence of both striving and non-striving. It is the naked image of the primordial Buddha principle. This entrance into the Dharmakaya is the perfection of non-watching – there is no more criteria and the understanding of Maha Ati as the last stage is completely transcended.

9. Returning to the Source

The search for enlightenment has come full circle.  The world goes on regardless of what changes have occurred. It is the nature of all phenomena.

9. Reaching the Source

Since there is already such space and openness and the total absence of fear, the play of the wisdoms is a natural process. The source of energy which need not be sought is there; it is that you are rich rather than being enriched by something else. Because there is basic warmth as well as basic space, the Buddha activity of compassion is alive and so all communication is creative. It is the source in the sense of being an inexhaustible treasury of Buddha activity. This is, then, the Sambhogakaya.

10. Returning to Help Sentient Beings

The enlightened being might be anybody who has renounced the world to help others towards the path.  Selfless service becomes the hallmark of wisdom.

10. In the World

Nirmanakaya is the fully awakened state of being in the world. Its action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. This state is dealing with the earth with ultimate simplicity, transcending following the example of anyone. It is the state of “total flop” or “old dog”. You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to to subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care.


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