Struggling to hold the Ox’s head in the rope, she doesn’t dare let it go. But its habits of old can’t be easily changed. Now it charges up to the highlands, now it loiters in the misty ravine.

Hold the nose rope tight, lest the Ox wander back to its muddy haunts. Properly looked after, this Ox will become pure and gentle. Without devices or chain, of itself, the Ox will follow.

~ Ku-on Shih-yuan, 12th century poet, fourth and fifth verse of The Ten Ox-herding Pictures, found in Harada Sogaku, Lectures on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, 1957

This week we are looking at verses four and five of the classic Ten Oxherding Pictures, which for me, together represent the question: “How do we practice?” It is a most basic question in Zen, the Buddhist school of meditation, and yet, we find little guidance in the classic koan texts. Wumen, in his commentary on the first case of The Gateless Barrier, writes, “Make your whole body a solid mass, with your 360-bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles, soak into this one word: No.” In the same collection, Zhaozhou asks Nanchuan, his teacher, “What is the Way?” Nanchuan replies, “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Zhaozhou asks for instruction: “Do I lean into it or not?” Nanquan merely replies: “If you lean into it, you go against it,” without offering further direction.

So how should we practice? We practice just as we are.

When I was living in Japan, sitting at the SanUn Zendo, I sometimes tried various devices to intensify my meditation. During sesshin (retreats), I would get up after everyone was asleep, and sit more. If it was cold, I would wear a thin shirt to keep from falling asleep. The zendo floor was made of tatami mats, which contained both rice dust and rice mites dani (壁蝨), to which I was a bit allergic. So, I often had an annoyingly runny nose when sitting. One period, my nose was dripping, but rather than move to wipe it ~ moving even the slightest bit in some zendos is forbidden ~ I just continued sitting. One more device: don’t move.

So, I let it run, and a many inches-long stalactite began to build off my nose. Just then, Yamada Roshi came in to give some mid-week dokusan (one-on-one instruction) to a few students. I didn’t think he could see my nose in the dark zendo, but on passing, he tapped me on the shoulder to come to dokusan.

I went in (after blowing my nose), and he asked in Japanese: “What is this?”, gesturing dripping coming from his nose. I had no answer. He said: “That is so gross (“kitanai zo”)! He peered at me for a long second, and then rang his hand bell as a signal that dokusan was over. I apologized and left. I am pretty sure his primary interest not policing the zendo’s hygiene rules. He was trying to teach me how to meditate without devices. Yamada was telling me that we do not work with koans holding onto some notion about how we should live. Rather, we bring koans into our lives just as they are: No need for something extra.

I was visiting with a friend recently, and she said, “Well, recently I have decided to give up working toward enlightenment. I don’t know, but I feel so joyful about doing that.” We have, in the past, shed together tears of loss, tears of unknowing, and the laughter of awakening. I told her, “Well, I think that is enlightenment itself.”

Without devices or chain, of itself, the Ox will follow.” I like that picture.