The battle is over, and the time for loss or gain passed.
She plays a country tune on her flute, and sings a child’s simple song.
Lying down on the Ox’s back, she gazes up at the clouds in the sky.
If called, she does not turn around; if caught, she will not be tied down.
Riding up on the Ox, with ease she makes for home.
In a straw hat and grass robe, the evening mist wraps around her.
Step after step, pure wind blows with utmost ease.
An intimate companion knows her words without speaking.
~ Ku-on Shih-yuan, 12th century poet, Sixth Preface and Verse, translated from Lectures on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, Harada Sogaku, 1957.
In reading these verses in the original Sino-Japanese and then translating them into English, what has most impressed me in this sixth series of the Ten Oxherding Pictures is its deep expression of joy. It reminded me of our sutra dedication, which goes: Let wisdom go to every corner of the house; Let people have joy in each other’s joy.
The joy, of course, is the natural joy of awakening. The first several Oxherding pictures were about beginning the search and getting just a taste of awakening. In Seeking the Ox, we hear for the first time that the universe is not oppositional. In Seeing the Tracks, and Seeing the Ox, we get some flavor for the light and grace that shines in all things. Then there are a couple of pictures of further practice: in Catching the Ox we return again and again to our meditation; in Taming the Ox, we feed and water it, nurturing it. Finally, in the sixth picture, we find an easy joy welling up, and for the first time, we actually climb onto the Ox and ride home. It is in this stage, Harada Sogaku believes, that we first experience true awakening. Let wisdom go to every corner of the house.
As we come out of this COVID winter, into the pandemic spring of vaccinations and rapidly falling infections, I have been taking inventory of my various feelings of this past year. In our greater community, there has been physical pain and death, and in some sectors, economic devastation. There has also been the emotional suffering of loneliness and isolation forced upon friends and family during the quarantine. But my strongest, and for me, perhaps least expected emotion, has been the simple joy of being alive.
In recent weeks, that joy has come in the form of translating these poems from Sino-Japanese to English. When I began studying Japanese decades ago, I would sit on the tatami room floor of my tiny apartment with seven dictionaries arrayed around me. Now, to look up kanji (Chinese characters), I flip from a speedy app on my iPhone, called Imiwa? (Jpn: The Meaning?), with its 2,500 characters, to Nelson’s old classic, Japanese-English Character Dictionary, which weighs in with 5,446 total characters. Leafing through Nelson’s yesterday, I saw that the third to the last character is Dō. It is made up of three “dragons”, one of my favorite kanji, with a total of 48 strokes. The character means “dragons moving.” Let people have joy in each other’s joy.
Raymond Carver’s poem has been cycling around our meetings in recent months, and it comes back to me often, as a koan would. I never tire of hearing or repeating to myself Late Fragment:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The dragons are now moving, taking flight, and the Oxen are wandering on their way back home.