PZI Teacher Archives

Self and Ox Forgotten


Jon Joseph Roshi, Director of San Mateo Zen, considers the 8th Ox-herding picture along with a verse from 12th century poet Kuon Shihyuan. What happens if Ox and Self disappear? PZI Zen Online. As recorded May 3, 2021.


Eighth Verse

Taking off all worldly feelings, 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.

—12th century poet Kuon Shihyuan, eighth verse from The Ten Ox-herding Pictures

Previously, we discussed the challenge in the very premise of the Oxherding pictures—that of measuring, weighing, and comparing our experience of awakening with others. In this eighth picture, Both Self and Ox Forgotten, with a deep breath of freshest air, we now exhaust all of that parsing and analysis.

In this stage, we have entered an atmosphere where all notions of self and ox, enlightenment and delusion, holiness and profanity, are found to be completely without substance. Even to say “entered“ is to say too much.

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.”

For me, this eighth picture is about great inclusiveness. At PZI we say that any small bit of enlightenment is all of enlightenment. Any small piece of seeing the nature (kensho in Japanese) is exactly the experience of the ancient teachers.

Still, it is easy to interpret these later stages of the Oxherding pictures as the result of earning merit badges to graduate from Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout. But Seeking to Seeing, Training to Riding, on to Forgetting Ox, and then Forgetting Self, are not grades of awakening. We cycle through these stages constantly.

This picture takes in the whole of our lives: memories, dreams, delusions, passions. There is no-thing we need to do, no-thing left to improve. We forget that sometimes, however, and can come back to the experience time and time again. This very moment is the moment of Both Self and Ox Forgotten. Revisiting the no-self, no-ox is satisfying, freeing, life-giving and whole-making. It is feeling utterly natural.

A couple of days ago I was meditating in the morning, and down the block some workers 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, and it sounded just right. Familiar. RRRRrrrr. RRRRrrrr. Intimate. I did not want it to stop. But talking about it is difficult.

—Jon Joseph Roshi

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