Oxherding Pictures

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This is a series of Chan (Japanese, Zen) school illustrations of a boy chasing and taming a wild ox that symbolizes the process of seeking and attaining enlightenment by means of self-discipline and self-transformation. Through the ten paintings that are titled and accompanied by verse commentaries, a narrative of the awakening process unfolds. The boy represents a seeker, and the ox represents the chaotic, unharnessed tendencies of the mind or ego that has the potential to be transformed into a vehicle for real-izing true spiritual awareness.

What is known as the Ten Oxherding Pictures is not a single collection of illustrations, but multiple versions of the series of pictures and poems. The best known are two early versions developed in the eleventh or twelfth century during the Song dynasty of China: one by Puming, which is probably the oldest, and the other by Kuoan. These are included in the main supplement to the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Xu zang jing (Supplemental Buddhist Canon), but they have been reproduced and modified on numerous occasions. Revision of the paintings and comments was especially popular in Tokugawa-era Japan, and new versions have been produced in the modern period as well. A well-known version by Kuo'an is transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps and illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki in a way that is similar to the originals, but with some interesting differences.

The early version by Puming is titled as follows:

  1. Undisciplined.
  2. Discipline Begun.
  3. In Harness.
  4. Faced Round.
  5. Tamed.
  6. Unimpeded.
  7. Laissez Faire.
  8. All Forgotten.
  9. The Solitary Moon.
  10. Both Vanished.

The other early series by Kuo'an is titled as follows:

  1. Searching for the Ox.
  2. Seeing the Traces.
  3. Seeing the Ox.
  4. Catching the Ox.
  5. Herding the Ox.
  6. Coming Home on the Ox's Back.
  7. The Ox Forgotten.
  8. The Ox and the Man Both Gone Out of Sight.
  9. Returning to the Origin.
  10. Entering the World.

In both sets, subtle details in the landscape and the coloring of the boy, ox, trees, moon, and other background elements change to reflect the changing state of mind of the seeker, who gradually attains enlightenment.

The main difference in the versions hinges on the sequence of events and the religious implications in the final outcome. In the Puming version, the boy tames the ox and the two coexist in a paradisiacal state, and then move into a mystical realm. By the penultimate picture, the ox is gone, and in the last, the boy also disappears, leaving an empty circle. In the Kuoan version, the empty circle appears in the seventh picture, but by the end the boy, without the ox, reenters the ordinary world to apply his enlightenment in the marketplace.

See also:Chan School


Miyuki, Mokusen. "Self-Realization in the Ten Oxherding Pictures." In Self and Liberation: The Jung/Buddhism Dialogue, ed. Daniel J. Meckel and Robert L. Moore. New York: Paulist Press, 1992.

Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, collected by Paul Reps and tr. by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing, 1957.

Suzuki, D. T. The Manual of Zen Buddhism. London: Rider and Company, 1950.

Steven Heine