This little text and illustrations are among the most notoriously known of the Zen teachings. It had originated from the Maha Gopalaka Sutta and later spread throughout eastern Asia. It uses the metaphors of a herder and a bull/cow/ox representing a practitioner and their true self/mind divided into ten stages of spiritual practice. Here with illustrations by our new gang member - Jomeisan.


The first picture shows a person who just entered the spiritual quest, trying to find their true self. Not satisfied with the joys and sorrows of the material world, we begin to realize that a part of us is missing. It may be the elusive part which makes us truly who we are - which makes us whole. But no one knows just yet - we have literally just left the house, still clueless about where to look.


Vast-spreading grass, running [through] pursuing [the] search,
waters, huge mountains, remote roads [lead even] deeper.
Strength exhausted, spirit tired, [there's] nowhere to look
[-] just hears maple trees [and] evening cicadas cry.

We are surrounded by tall and thick grassy jungle of concepts and judgements in our perception. A strong and rigid idea of the bull's nature is rooted in our mind, but we are confused by the shear number of paths and roads that promise to lead to the ultimate goal. Exhausted and overwhelmed by the unceasing strife to look and act like a spiritual person, we are still idly roaming the vast mindscape. We won't get anywhere until, perhaps out of sense of defeat, we start to 'just' observe the phenomena around us, leaving behind their names or concepts.


Now, after a time of rigorous practice, the seeker develops some comprehension about the methods how to search for the bull, instead of just anxiously running around in circles. They know that they need to ever-patiently comb every inch of their mind, looking for the footprints of the bull itself. Quite surprisingly and contrary to common prejudices, these track are to be found even in the most distractive of our reactions and neuroses. The key is to observe without judgement. If we wish find our bull, we can't undermine our effort by waiting for a nice and esthetically pleasing set of perfect footprints, or perhaps even a road-sign saying "Liberation: 2 months of 2x30min meditation once a week and continuous self-indulgence". If we are sincere in our quest for the genuine bull, then finding a pile of its shit will naturally fill us with joy, for we know that following its trail, we'll get right to the source and given enough time, we cannot miss it.


[At the] waterside, under trees tracks [are] rather many;
Fragrant grass [is] spreading as far as one can see!
Ahead [lie] so deep mountains [and] even deeper places
[Nevertheless, the] the distant-heaven-[reaching] nose - how [could the bull] hide...

Struggling through the thick jungle of confusing expectations and desires, we finally catch a glimpse of something that looks like a trail of breadcrubs. But how can we be sure that this is the right path? The ever-present fear of failure is still slowly eating through our guts and we are so easily seduced by all those appealing sensory stimmuli. But due to the strong ego-clinging, the bull's nose is so high it's almost touching the heaven - and that's what finally gives it away.


After a long time of learning, enduring many hardships and tireless cultivation of various meditation techniques and skillful means, our effort finally starts to bring real fruits. We've already learnt the theoretical knowledge from our teachers and ancient sages and we've trained hard to put the theory into practice. Following the subtlemost trails of breadcrumbs through our mindscape and its perception of all phenomena, there in a long distance, we have finally caught a mere fleeting glimpse of the true nature of the mind. The quest is in no way over and we still have an immense journey ahead of us, but now we have a proof of concept, now we can finally let go of our doubts whether the bull is reachable or not. The bull is still in some distance and perhaps separated from our reach by some arduous terrain, however, now we won't let it out of sight, we no longer need to follow breadcrumbs - now we have direct experience and thus can follow it directly. It's only natural that we are experiencing states of bliss and release of tension as we reduce our grasping at the countless sensory stimmuli.


A yellow oriole on a branch chirps
Sun warm, wind still, willows at the banks [are] green.
Here, [there's] obviously nowhere to evade [the herder].
Among the forests, the head [and] horns [are truly] hard to depict.

Gone is our anxiousness, even the landscape has lost the feel of confusion. We can finally stop and just enjoy the nature around us, suddenly it feels so familiar, beautiful and welcoming. Now we can finally see its movement through the bushes. The more it tries to run, the more it gives away its position. There's no way to describe or depict the beauty of the true nature of the mind. Only to experience it first hand.


We have spent so much effort and now, it's time to use the whip and rope - the skillful means with which we can catch the bull and try to reign it in. Through our many wins and fails, we have learnt not to contend with the bull and run after it loudly, for that way it'll never let us close. Only through calming our spirit to the point where nothing can rattle us and learning to step as softly and silently as a housecat, can we slowly sneak within reach. In this stage we've already stopped being the victim of the bull's pranks, and it's our turn to take the helm. We'll need to gather all the motivation and inner strength which we've accumulated in our practice in order to tame such powerful beast which is fully used to running around and kicking out as it pleases and can't imagine a life without the sweet grass of desire. Therefore we can't expect it to give in without a fight...


Exhausting the full strength of the spirit,
[the herder] caught the bull [and got it into a] ditch.
Heart [is] strong; strength mighty; makes it difficult to get separated [again]
Just at times, [the bull] gets [back] to the high plateau
[and] again, enters [its] smokey-cloud-covered deep dwelling.

In the years of unwavering practice of patience, compassion (the innermost and profound wish that all sentient beings avoid suffering and recognize true happiness) and rock-hard discipline, it almost looks as though we've made a lasso, and a whip out of it, which just wrapped around the bull's neck in a compassionate lock. Our conviction is strong, but so are the bull's muscles. Just when it finally looks we got it cornered, it kicks out throwing us away and runs back in the obscuring mist of ignorance to its favorite pasture of sensory pleasures and we have to follow and catch it again. But with practice comes experience, so in time we'll hold it tight and won't let it slip away.


Little by little we've gained skill in using the whip and rope ever so gently, so the bull won't get scared and now the lasso of discipline is secured around its neck and we can proceed to slowly calming it down and taming it. Our motivation to do so is simple: The bull's ignorant attachment to desires and pleasures makes it oblivious to its great suffering caused by running around the jungle hitting trees and rocks. For us, the bull is no longer a priced trophy of a spiritual conquest.


[Using] whip [and] rope, times [and] times [again] [the herder will] not separate [from the bull,]
afraid it [would] freely walk [away] into the dust and mud.
[Yet] to reign both in is to reach genuine harmony.
[If] the whip [and] lock are not restraining, [it'll] follow the person on its own.

We've come to the realization that all the suffering of being comes from self-centered attitude and haughtiness, and that the ignorant mind behaves exactly like a spoiled child - therefore it needs to be treated as such. Not out of spite - as a dominant master bullies their subjects for insubordinance, but out of care - as a loving mother lessons her child not to run with scissors or put things in the power outlet. However, we must keep in mind that children not so much listen to what we say to them directly, but rather generally mimic our behavior in different situations. Therefore if we wish them to be genuinely calm, peaceful and loving, we must be genuinely calm, peaceful and loving our selves in the first place. If our behaviour and treatment has even the slightest tone of pretense or untruthfulness, they'll recognize it and it will spark defiance. And since the bull is our own self, it'll definitely know even before us. At this point we can clearly see that what needs to be defeated and tamed was never the bull - our ego - but our will to fight it. Hence the only way for us to succeed is to give up all selfish motivation and act solely for the benefit of others - only that way we can ensure the true safety and happiness for our selves.


The struggle is over. We've managed to convince the bull of our compassionate intentions and it recognized that it'll be much better off by trusting us. That's the de facto end of what is meaningful to be called a 'spiritual journey'. We've at last become friends with our ego - so there's no reason to go anywhere else but to return home. Our friendship is strong, because its not based on attachment, but on true love (which is never selfish) and 'true love' is just another word for genuine altruism. Therefore if we're still using the rope, it is merely to keep us from falling off the bull's back, but soon enough even that isn't necessary, for the bull's haughtiness is gone without a trace and is replaced by genuine cooperation, that's why we no longer need to walk all the way back as well as we don't need to navigate through that complicated mindscape as before, since the bull knows it best anyway. Therefore all the worries have lost their relevance and all we need to do is to sit back and be overjoyed by the beauty of the vast universe that is our mind.


Riding the bull, [they are] meandering, wanting [to be] homebound
the nomadic flute sounds through the evening mist
each step, each song [is of] limitless mind [/meaning]
to know [the] sound, how [could one] need drums [and] lips [with] tusks[...]

The war is over, the concern for gain or loss has spontaneously evaporated as the former hunter and prey have joined forces and became best friends. Without the continuous fighting our selves, the jungle is no longer confusing and overwhelming. The former seeker and the bull travel together, looking after one another and keeping each other company. To suddenly recognize a true friend who's been there all along is like to spot a piece of pure gold in sand, or a diamond among shattered glass... There is no reason not to be overjoyed by the simplest things, once we've recognized that all things and phenomena are and always have been spontaneously perfect and all their seeming imperfections are made up by our own ignorance. No need to say that we'll never go back to our previous life of desires and strife - there's nothing there which can possibly compare to this level of freedom and rapture. But still there is a tiny little notion that we and the bull are separate entities.


On the bull's back, we have returned home - but suddenly the bull isn't there! Now we realize the dream-like illusory nature of all phenomena in our perception and so the notion of an independent ego has lost its meaning. This might be already pointing at so called the first "Dhyana" - a state of immense and vivid bliss of our subtle body, which arises once all our inner discrimination and chaos has ceased. There, the mind is unimaginably calm and steady like the motionless evening air, yet acutely present, strong and ready for action, like a sprinter before the sound of a starting gun.


Riding the bull, [they have] already arrived at the home mountain.
Oh, the bull [is] indeed empty! The person [is] indeed calm.
Red sun [still] three poles [high] - as though dreaming.
The whip [and] rope [both] empty, laid [there] in the hall.

We couldn't become one with the bull, for the bull is a mere designation, a concept solidified in our ignorant mind. Now we fully realize this and feel as though our body had no weight at all - as though our whole life we'd been carrying a load of delicate crystalware, always worried about breaking it, and now we finally laid it down... The sun is still as high as at noon, yet already in sunset hues. The rigorous practice and discipline without which we would have no chance to find the bull and bring it back is no longer necessary, same as medicines after being fully cured. The sickness of ignorance can no longer rule over us. We just sit and observe immensely enjoying this total freedom.


Once we realize the emptiness of the concept of ego, sooner or later we'll realize the emptiness of all phenomena.


The whip, the search, the person [and] the bull [are all] fully joined together [in] emptiness.
The blue sky's vast extensiveness [is] truly hard to communicate
[-] the red [hot] stove strives to hold a snow[flake].
Arriving in this direction, [one] can connect with [The Great] Ancestor.

The distinction between subject and object has lost its meaning. The searcher, the searched, even the search it self, along with every teaching, skillful means and everything else are all mere manifestations of dependent origination - in other words: are empty of intrinsic existence - that is the primordial true nature of all phenomena, the absolute level of existence. Any attempt to explain it in words is as futile as looking at a photo and believing it to be equal to being there. No ignorant clinging can survive in the burning furnace of such an insight. This is a direct experience of the true nature, the highermost of realization which no concepts can even begin to phantom. We also no longer stay where the Awakened ones dwell. Instead, we move to where they are lacking.


There were never any real danger for the seeker to become truly apart of their true nature. In time we've recognized the flaw in our view, which might not be dissimiliar to looking at the world through very dirty glasses. Therefore its no surprise that now, when we see everything without the dirt of our former preconceptions, it feels as though we are seeing it for the very first time, amazed how vivid it really is.


Having returned to the root, coming back to origin [- such a] wasteful achievement[!]
[It cannot] contend with [staying] frankly down [to earth], like [a] deaf-mute.
In the hut, [one] does not see things in front of it.
Waters themselves [spread] vast and vast; flowers themselves [bloom in] red.

Everything has never been other than spontaneously perfect, every mind primordially awaken. What could possibly be more futile than trying to improve it any further?!... If a diamond is fully covered in a ball of thick dirt, all we have to do is wash it away - why on earth would we try to cover it by another layer of artificial ornaments or even paint a picture of a diamond over it?


The tenth and last picture shows things continuing in their natural flow. There's no reason to separate from the "ordinary" life, for in reality, it is the same as the "spiritual" one. All the sentient beings, their inner diamonds are primordially pure and perfect, no matter how deluded and arrogant they appear to act. There's no gain in making impressions, there's no point in pretense or worshipping symbols. The natural state requires no additives whatsoever.


Exposed chest [and] barefoot, enters the marketplace.
[feet] wiping the ground['s] mud [and] dust, [yet with] cheeks full of laughter[!]
[There's] no need [for] the divine ones' true secret know-how
[-] A direct teaching, [and look!] on a withered tree blossoms [are] opening[!]


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