Shedding all worldly feelings and erasing all holy thoughts,
You do not linger where the Buddha is and pass by where the Buddha is not.
If you hold onto ideas of duality, the Bodhisattva with a thousand eyes will find you.
Even if a myriad of birds brought you flowers, it would be a disgrace.
The whip, rope, Ox and you yourself are all thoroughly without substance.
In the vast blue sky, talking about it is difficult.
In the flames of the fireplace, snowflakes cannot land.
When you come to know this, you will join in the wisdom of the ancient teachers.
~ Ku-on Shih-yuan, Eighth Verse, The Ten Ox-herding Pictures, 12th century poet
(Translated from Harada Sogaku, Lectures on the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, 1957)
In previous pictures, we discussed the challenges of the very premise of the Oxherding pictures: measuring, weighing, and comparing our experience of awakening with others. In this eighth picture, Both Self and Ox Forgotten, we now deconstruct and dismantle all notions of parsing and analysis. In this stage, we have entered a world where Self and Ox, enlightenment and delusion, holiness and profanity, are completely found to be without substance. Even to say “entered“ is to say too much: There was no-thing, no-labels, no-distinctions from the very beginning. There is only this vast blue sky. It is not something which can be spoken of; it is only something we experience.
This is Bodhidharma’s response, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy”, when asked by Emperor Wu “What is the first principle of the holy teachings of Buddhism?” It is Linji’s “Sometimes I take away both the person and the surroundings.” Changqin wrote, after some years of practice: ”Now he’s changed into the white ox on the bare ground, always right in front of my face. All day long he clearly reveals himself; even if I chase him he doesn’t go away.”
For me, this eighth picture is about great inclusiveness, and the freedom that comes from embracing our world rather than pushing it away. We have been here before: We often say: any small bit of enlightenment is all of enlightenment. That means any small piece of seeing the nature (kensho in Japanese), is exactly the experience of the ancient teachers. Searching for the Ox, seeing the tracks, seeing the Ox for the first time, is all encompassed in the eighth stage. These later stages of the Oxherding pictures as the achieved by earning merit badges to graduate from Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout. They are not about an experience reserved only for the elite; the good; the strong; the true meditator. We cycle through these stages constantly. When we can shed the world of labels, if only for a moment, we may dwell in a place of utter freedom. A place of no-names.
This picture is actually even more inclusive than any single experience. It takes in the whole of our lives: memories, dreams, delusions, passions. There is no-thing we need to do, no-thing left to improve. This very moment is the moment of Both Self and Ox Forgotten. Koan work is simply a matter of revisiting that point time and again, rediscovering how the Ox appears and disappears in our lives.
Revisiting the no-self, is life-giving and whole-making. It is feeling utterly naturalness. A couple of days ago I was meditating in the morning, and down the block some workmen began to cut tree branches away from power lines with a chainsaw and chip them up. I sat there, listening to the whine of the saws and the chunking of the chipper: GRRRRrrrr. GRRRRrrrr, GRRRRrrrr. It sounded just right. Intimate. I did not want it to stop. Forgetting the Ox and not so hard to experience, only talking about it is difficult.