77 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2
79 - Buddha's Teachings 10: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The Ten Oxherding pictures are a Zen teaching, but many Buddhist practitioners are familiar with the experience of trying to motivate yourself to practice without the rewards of explicit, tangible goals or markers of progress. The oxherding pictures describe – rather than prescribe – stages of practice we go through over a lifetime. They can be inspiring and encouraging as long as you don’t try too hard to evaluate which stage you’re in, or strive to get to the next stage.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Frustration of Practice Without Tangible, Explicit Goals or Rewards
Progress Is Individual, Non-Linear, and Opportunistic
Oxherding Picture 1: Beginning Practice
Oxherding Pictures 2 & 3: Tasting the Rewards of Practice
Oxherding Pictures 4, 5 & 6: Deepening Our Relationship to the Truth
Oxherding Pictures 7-10: Letting Go of Distinctions and Engaging in the World

 

The Frustration of Practice Without Tangible, Explicit Goals or Rewards

When he was younger, my nephew spent some time training in karate. He was eight when I heard him express some frustration about it. It was fall, and he said, “I haven’t been there for the summer. If I go back now they’ll make me do all the same stuff over again.” He then expressed interest in taking Taekwondo instead, because – according to a friend of his – there you get to do all kinds of neat kicks right off the bat, and you get to progress to higher belt levels more quickly. Apparently, my nephew’s karate dojo was pretty strict; students had to drill in discipline and basic katas for quite a while before going on to showy stuff like sparring.

My nephew was honestly expressing the same kind of frustration many of us feel about our Buddhist practice. Actually, the frustration we can feel in Buddhism may be even worse, because our course of practice isn’t laid out for us anywhere near as clearly as the course of training in a martial art. In most forms of Buddhism, we don’t get to master a particular practice, take a test, and then move on to the “next” practice. We don’t have colored belts or publicly declared levels. While we may acknowledge the equivalent of “black belts” in the form of empowered teachers, it’s not suggested we should all train in order to fulfill that particular role. Instead, we’re asked to do the same basic practices over and over, like a beginner’s karate form, with no end in sight. (Note: There are a few Buddhist lineages that incorporate public and systematic acknowledgement of your progress, or lack of it, on the path of practice; these are primarily lineages that focus on formal koan study, or on Vajrayana empowerments. That may be part of their appeal to some.)

Most of us, though, get no clear course of training and no external affirmations of whether we are doing it right, progressing, or achieving anything. How can we maintain our focus and motivation in Buddhist practice? In Mahayana Buddhism especially, we’re taught to give up petty ideas about attainment and to realize there is no place to go other than right here. In essence, we are asked to patiently and diligently apply ourselves to a demanding and repetitive practice, and… well, that’s it. Sit zazen regularly and do your best to act morally and unselfishly. Year and year, decade after decade. There’s nobility in this kind of goalless patience and diligence, but how realistic is it to expect it from Buddhist practitioners who don’t have their black belts yet? After all, goallessness is a goal, not something that comes easily (unless you are actually just uninspired).

Hopefully we feel some benefits from our Buddhist practice, because this can help us keep up with it. Yet even this can become limiting. If we make our dedication to practice dependent on apparent benefits – such as a sense that our meditation is becoming more still over time, or we feel calmer throughout the day – then our practice may stagnate or wane when no new or substantial benefits are appearing. We also may be inclined to only put into practice the time and energy that seems reasonable compared with its associated payoff. For example, if the only benefit of our practice is feeling a little calmer throughout the day, then it might be worth… maybe… one night of sangha practice plus 2-3 meditation sessions at home during the week. Maybe more, maybe less, but we base the amount we put into practice on the amount we get out of it.

Progress Is Individual, Non-Linear, and Opportunistic

However, at a deeper level, Buddhist practice is not about improving our life, or getting better at anything. It is our life. It’s about being completely who we are, where we are, when we are. Ultimately, our journey is entirely our own, unlike anyone else’s. What should we do next in practice? What should we work on? No one can answer that question for us. I don’t know what it is for you to be completely who you are, and vice versa. We can recognize a sense of enlightened ease and authenticity in each other, but that’s after that fact. I don’t know what’s keeping you from being completely here, completely now. I may be able to guess, but only you can find out. There are Buddhist tools, teachings and practices we all engage in because they facilitate this process of personal discovery, but mastering them is not the point. That would be like someone in karate memorizing all the right moves but lacking the integration and spirit to embody them and make them effective.

Buddhism is frustratingly simple. Basically, we are given the ideal of buddhahood, and a basic set of tools that will help us get there. Then, from the moment we begin conscious practice to the moment we achieve perfect enlightenment, it’s up to us. Anytime we wonder what to do next (which is perfectly natural), we ask ourselves what is still standing in the way of our manifesting buddhahood. What keeps us stuck? What still makes us angry, anxious or depressed? What keeps us from practicing generosity the way we aspire to? What keeps us from appreciating the simple fullness of this moment? The list of such questions goes on, infinitely. Whenever we find an obstacle to our enlightenment, we turn toward it and practice with it.

Buddhist practice over time is not linear. One moment we may work on our fear, the next on our willingness to let go, the next on our acceptance of ourselves. Sometimes a particular issue will become very pressing and important to us, and we will dedicate lots of energy to clarifying and working with it. Then it will recede beyond our grasp, even though we haven’t “finished” with it yet. In the meantime, another obstacle will make itself known to us, perhaps one we really aren’t interested in working on. Occasionally we seize upon a problem we have and do our best to understand and resolve it, but it resists all of our best efforts and we have to leave it on the back burner for the time being.

Most of the time our Buddhist practice is opportunistic – we take advantage of whatever material is coming our way, and practice with it. It can be a little disorienting at times, and does not lend itself to simple narrative descriptions of how our practice has been developing and improving over time. What kind of test could you take in order to earn your green or blue belt in “being at peace with yourself?” How do you know whether someone really deserves a black belt in “not speaking dishonestly” or “awakened to a sense of non-separation?”

Oxherding Picture 1: Beginning Practice

Still – there are stages in Buddhist practice. It is not that no development or progress occurs, it’s just that it is usually subtle and intimately entwined with our lives. In Zen, we have a lovely visual teaching that illustrates our stages of practice when we’re not trying to go anywhere besides right here. This teaching is called the Ten Oxherding Pictures, and I’ll refer its ten images throughout the rest of this episode.

Before practice begins there is ignorance. And by “practice,” I don’t necessarily mean just Buddhist practice. “Practice” just means conscious spiritual practice – the process of investigating this life to see what more there is to it. Before we’re inspired to begin such an investigation, we think everything’s okay. Or, if things don’t seem okay, it’s someone else’s fault, or there’s nothing to be done about it. The thought that we could live differently has not yet occurred to us.

When we begin practice, we develop a growing sense that there is another way. There are things that can be done. There are people who have learned to live in a way that seems more free, authentic and bright than how we’ve managed to live. What is it we are seeking? We ourselves hardly know. In the ten oxherding pictures, this stage of practice is described by the first image: A man searching for an ox he has lost. It’s significant the pictures start here, not with the man losing his ox. Life is just the way it is; we find ourselves with a sense of incompleteness, separation, or loss, and start searching for what we’ve lost – even if we’re not sure what it looks like or whether it even really exists.

Oxherding Pictures 2 & 3: Tasting the Rewards of Practice

The second oxherding picture is of the man discovering some of the ox’s footprints. In this stage we’ve stumbled upon hard evidence the ox – the subject or object of our spiritual search – actually exists. We have some sense of how we might find it. In this stage we may alternate between excitement and doubt, conviction and boredom. At times we feel very inspired and motivated, at other times we may forget about the ox or feel despair that we’ll ever find it. It’s exciting to find the first ox footprints, but what if that’s all you see is footprints, year after year? This stage of practice can be marked by skepticism – either about the teachings, or about our own abilities.

Then we experience our first real reward of practice. It may be a flash of insight about our lives that can’t be easily described to others but which makes all the difference to us. It may be a problematic habit of mind or body that dissolves and liberates us. Perhaps our daily experience of life shifts enough that everything starts to look and feel very different than it used to. Or maybe our intuition about the truth is so strong, we are moved to tears by the words of the ancient Buddhist masters. At this point we know we’re on the right track. In the oxherding pictures this is image number three, where the man has actually caught sight of the ox. When we progress this far, we gain determination and patience we did not have before. We are willing to sit harder and longer, endure more discomfort, and turn toward more difficult truths – without demanding immediate pay-off.

 

Oxherding Pictures 4, 5 & 6: Deepening Our Relationship to the Truth

Eventually the truth becomes something that feels more present in our lives – something we’re developing a relationship to, rather than something we’re searching for. Still, at times there’s a struggle as we strive to keep hold of the truth and make it our own. This stage of practice may last a very long time. Actually, to some extent it continues forever. In the oxherding pictures this stage is represented two images: First, the man wrestles with the ox and manages to catch it, and tether it with a rope. Now he won’t ever lose track of it, but still there’s some struggle and tension required in order to hold on to it. Second, in the fifth oxherding picture, the man has tamed the ox, who is calmly following the man on loose tether – no more struggle.

In the sixth oxherding picture, the man has tamed the ox even further and is riding it at ease, playing a flute. This reflects a deepening relationship with the ox, or to the truth, which is really about our relationship to life – so this is where we become more and more deeply who we are, where we are, when we are. When we reach this stage, we have a clear sense of what our practice is about. It’s much more relaxed, and we know what to do next. We’re happy to devote our energy to practice for the rest of our lives.

Oxherding Pictures 7-10: Letting Go of Distinctions and Engaging in the World

With even more time and dedication, the distinctions between self and truth dissolve (or so I’ve heard). There’s no more sense of seeking something outside, or of having to master anything outside us. It’s not that there’s no more point to practice, it’s just that it’s all experienced in a very different way. The oxherding pictures portray the increasing dissolution of discrimination and distinctions in the later stages of practice with three successive images. First, the man sitting peacefully, ox and rope forgotten; then an image of nothing at all (just an empty circle), because all distinctions have been transcended; then with an image of a peaceful natural scene without man or ox, when it becomes understood the whole struggle was an illusion to begin with. When we reach this stage of practice (perhaps only for moments at a time), we become very still and quiet. There is nothing to prove, nothing lacking. Everything appears optional, even as compassion flows freely.

Finally, there is nothing special at all. The last oxherding picture shows this as the man returning to the world, happy and simple. To return to our karate analogy, this would be a karate master joining the beginners in the dojo to do basic katas – blending in, not showing off, not self-conscious about his mastery, or how others will perceive him. He just does the katas like the beginners do – but does he? If we were watching, our eyes would be drawn to him. His mastery would be fully evident in the simplest movement.

So, there are stages in Buddhist practice. There are things to be “achieved,” and a direction to go. But the stages are descriptive, not prescriptive: They reflect the way practice evolves if we keep working at it with patience and diligence. We don’t get to decide how quickly we will pass through the stages; it is not simply a matter of determination, although determination is an essential element. Setting our sights on the next stage is useful only if it inspires us or gives us faith in what we are doing right now.

 

77 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 2
79 - Buddha's Teachings 10: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
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