In the fundamental purity, not a single mote of dust can land. Witnessing the rise and decline of things,
He settles into the ease of doing not a thing.
It is not an illusion, so why get stuck there?
In the green of the mountains, the waters are blue. Just sit and watch them come and go.
Returning to the origin, coming back to the source, there is nothing to be done.
Perhaps it would have been better to have fallen down blind and deaf.
From inside the hermitage, you can’t see things on the outside.
The waters themselves are vast, the flowers themselves are crimson.
~ Ku-on Shih-yuan, Ninth Verse, The Ten Ox-herding Pictures, 12th century poet
(Translated from Harada Sogaku, Lectures on the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, 1957)
Despite the many published words, poems, and books that describe Zen, awakening is an utterly simple experience of two parts: form and emptiness. And given that these two parts are inseparable, there is really just one part. We have visited form and emptiness in all of the Oxherding Pictures to date. Seeking the Ox, Catching, Training and Riding the Ox home are all form. Seeing the Tracks, Seeing the Ox, Ox Forgotten, and Self Forgotten are all varying degrees of emptiness. With the ninth Oxherding Picture, we return to the world of form, but only after having experienced the vast emptiness described in the eighth picture, Both Self and Ox Forgotten.
There are a couple of themes in this ninth picture. The first is the “rise and decline”, the birth and death, of all things in the universe. In this world of utter purity, we realize that all things in our lives are born, grow, and pass away. Everything is in movement, in flux, being re-created moment by moment; “coming and going we are never astray,” writes Hakuin.
And yet, it is possible to witness this creation and destruction with a sense of ease, often great joy, compassion, and sometimes sadness. This is the ease of “doing not a thing”, of “nothing to be done.” This Taoist quality of wuwei, effortless action, is found throughout classic Zen literature. Linji writes:
“Followers of the Way, as I see it we are no different from Śākya. What do we lack for our manifold activities today? The six-rayed divine light never ceases to shine. See it this way, and you’ll be a person who has nothing to do their whole life long.”
We “enjoy a samādhi of frolic and play,” writes Wumen in his commentary on Zhao Zhou’s Dog in The Gateless Barrier. This samadhi of frolic and play, in this sense, is full engagement in life. It has elements of both sweet and bitter, and expresses an empathy for all things and their fleeting condition of love and loss.
The Japanese haiku poet Issa was born Kobayashi Yotaro in 1763, the son of a wealthy farmer. When two, he lost his mother, and was raised by his grandmother. As a six-year old, he wrote the following poem:
ware to kite / asobi yo / oya no nai suzume
Oh, motherless sparrows / come here / and play with me.
When Issa married, he lost two young sons in their first years of life, then took tremendous joy in having a baby girl, and wrote this poem for her (who was of the age when he lost his mother):
haewarete / futsu ni naru zo / kesa haru wa
Crawl and laugh / From this morning on / you are two!
Not long after, she died of smallpox, and in the pain and sorrow of his loss, Issa wrote one of his most famous poems:
tsuyu no yo wa / tsuyu no yo nagara / sari nagara
The dewdrop world/ is a dewdrop world/ and yet … and yet.
So, in this ninth picture of the Ten Oxherding pictures, we return to the world of form, with its wax and wane, joy and sorrow. But somehow, in realizing the light that shines in all things, we are able to move with greater ease and appreciation, not getting stuck, in any of these conditions.
In the green of the mountains, the waters are blue…
The waters themselves are vast; the flowers themselves are crimson.