Filed in Arts & Culture

Oxherding

A spiritual path in poems and picturesArtwork by Max Gimblett | Translations by Lewis Hyde

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The set of poems and drawings known as the Oxherding series presents a parable about the conduct of Buddhist practice. In the most common version, attributed to a 12th-century Chinese Zen master, there are ten drawings, the first of which shows a young herder who has lost the ox he is supposed to be tending. In subsequent images he finds the ox’s tracks, sees the beast itself, tames it, and rides it home. In the seventh drawing the ox disappears: it “served a temporary purpose,” the accompanying poem says; it was a metaphor for something, not to be mistaken for the thing itself. The herder too disappears in the next drawing; the image simply shows a circle (Japanese, enso), a common symbol for enlightenment. The ninth drawing implies that the person who has achieved enlightenment does not then retreat from the world; called “Returning to the Roots, Going Back to the Source,” it usually shows a scene from nature.

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