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Riding the Ox Home: Stages on the Path of Enlightenment


Maps and guideposts are helpful when we undertake a journey. The ten Ox-Herding Pictures, the accompanying ancient poems, and a modern commentary by John Daido Loori, sketch the spiritual path encountered in Zen training, a path of exhaustive study of the self and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality. The Ox-Herding Pictures can be our companion on the Way of self-discovery, our compass and perspective when we need one. They are a bottomless source of mysterious wisdom to which we can return again ...

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Riding the Ox Home: Stages on the Path of Enlightenment

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Maps and guideposts are helpful when we undertake a journey. The ten Ox-Herding Pictures, the accompanying ancient poems, and a modern commentary by John Daido Loori, sketch the spiritual path encountered in Zen training, a path of exhaustive study of the self and the realization of the ultimate nature of reality. The Ox-Herding Pictures can be our companion on the Way of self-discovery, our compass and perspective when we need one. They are a bottomless source of mysterious wisdom to which we can return again and again for inspiration, and they translate easily into the gritty reality of spiritual practice that emerges from and grounds us in the inescapable relevance of our daily lives.

The exquisite versions of the pictures found in the book are traditional Chinese nanga brush paintings by Gyokusei Jikihara Sensei, a modern Japanese master of calligraphy and a teacher in the Obaku School of Zen. The traditional verses accompanying them have been translated by John Daido Loori and Kazuaki Tanahashi, translator and editor of Enlightenment Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Loori is to be commended for his wise and succinct assessment of the spiritual journey and the important role of spiritual practice."
Spirituality & Health
Publishers Weekly
Influential Zen Buddhist teacher Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, offers a clear commentary on "The Ox-herding Pictures," a traditional series of (usually) 10 pictures from 12th-century Chinese Zen master Kuoan accompanied by verses. The pictures form a characteristically wry Zen parable about the process of enlightenment. Loori successfully demonstrates his mastery of teaching: he makes the process simple and accessible, even while issuing cautions about how very, very hard the journey actually is. Loori is also a photographer, so his aesthetic sensibility lends richness to his use of the pictures as a teaching device in Zen study and practice. The herd of Zen oxen books continues to grow: Loori's nicely complements How to Raise an Ox by Francis Dojun Cook (Wisdom, May), an introduction to 13th-century Japanese Zen master Dogen that is more conceptual but equals Loori's in being a key to unlocking the considerable treasury of Zen heritage. (Indeed, both authors are students of Japanese Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi.) True, there is literature aplenty on Buddhism, but Loori is an authoritative and respected teacher and this small book, with illustrations in traditional brush painting style by Japanese calligrapher Gyokusei Jikihara Sensei, is effectively visual. It will make a great gift for a Zen student. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781570629518
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/13/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST SHAMBH
  • Pages: 104
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.25 (d)

Meet the Author

John Daido Loori (1931–2009) was one of the West's leading Zen masters. He was the founder and spiritual leader of the Mountains and Rivers Order and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery. His work has been most noted for its unique adaptation of traditional Asian Buddhism into an American context, particularly with regard to the arts, the environment, social action, and the use of modern media as a vehicle of spiritual training and social change. Loori was an award-winning photographer and videographer. His art and wildlife photography formed the core of a unique teaching program that integrated art and wilderness training by cultivating a deep appreciation of the relationship of Zen to our natural environment. He was a dharma heir of the influential Japanese Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi and he authored many books.

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Read an Excerpt

Riding the Ox Home

By John Daido Loori


Copyright © 1999 Mountains and Rivers Order
All right reserved.

ISBN: 157062951X

Chapter One


* * *

Searching for the Ox

Vigorously cutting a path through the brambles, you search for the ox; Wide rivers, eternal mountains, the path seems endless. With strength depleted, and mind exhausted, you cannot find it. There is only the gentle rustle of maple leaves, and the cicadas' evening song.

The first stage of a spiritual journey has to do with becoming aware of the possibility that a spiritual search can be a directive force in our lives. It is the time when we focus on the doubts plaguing us and clarify the intent of our lives. What is it that we must accomplish during this lifetime? What is most important to us?

There are all kinds of searches. Sometimes the search is for psychological well-being, sometimes for physical well-being, and sometimes for spiritual well-being. Many people come in contact with spiritual traditions seeking something that is not necessarily within the province of what those traditions are able to address. Physical and psychological contentment are often by-products of spiritual training, but if we are, primarily interested in becoming healthier or better adjusted, there are more appropriate ways of taking care of that. If we are concerned with realizingthe ground of being, with understanding who and what we really are, then we have begun a spiritual journey. In Zen, the training is specifically designed to deal with these fundamental spiritual inquiries.

The search can't start until the question arises. If the aspiration for enlightenment has not manifested; if the doubts we are confronting are not a matter of life and death; if, indeed, there is no question; then obviously there is no answer. The question needs to come up if genuine practice is to begin.

Zen literature is full of stories that point to the importance of getting in touch with our beginner's mind, of cultivating the attitude of a student. Master Deshan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra, one of the key scriptures of Buddhism. He lived in China in the eighth century, during the T'ang Dynasty, the golden age of Zen. He was very well versed in the Diamond Sutra and known all over northern China as one of its outstanding commentators. He had heard that Zen was being promoted in southern China as a "special transmission outside the scriptures," and was enraged by the idea that one didn't need to know how to read or be acquainted with the sacred texts to be able to realize oneself. He traveled south to denounce this heresy.

This was a man who had no questions-he had all the answers. He was filled with the Diamond Sutra and concluded that he understood the teachings forwards and backwards. There wasn't a part of the sutra he couldn't quote perfectly and elaborate on brilliantly. When he arrived in the southern region he had an encounter with an old woman selling tea by the roadside who, by chance, happened to be a Zen adept. She questioned him: "In the Diamond Sutra it says, `past mind cannot be grasped, future mind cannot be grasped, present mind cannot be grasped.' With which mind will you accept this tea if I offer it to you?" Deshan, dumbfounded, fell silent, having been thrown into a state of great doubt. Everything he thought he knew was of no help to him. In that instant, the solidity of his knowledge and acumen crumbled, and in its place opened a gaping dark void. The search began for him at that point. Before, there were no questions and no quest. He was dead in his expertise.

The old woman teacher revived him, and directed him to a monastery where he could continue to deepen his questioning and practice. He went off to study with Master Longtan, who took his inquiries and brought them into intense focus until, finally, Deshan broke through his doubts.

We begin our spiritual quest by bringing our doubts into view. Our questions need to be real, like the pain we feel living an inauthentic life. And they need to be clear. In general, we don't really look deeply at what we are doing, and why. We don't investigate ourselves and the premises of our lives. We hesitate to articulate what is most important to us. Entering a spiritual path, we raise our consciousness and clarify our purpose.

Once this happens, the groundwork is set for the real practice, the search for the self, to begin. The ox depicted in Kuoan's pictures represents the True Self; thus the search is basically a process of discovery of the nature of the self.

The first stage has to do with acknowledging and clarifying the aspiration to realize ourselves. It is that aspiration for clarity that will allow us to deal with the many layers of our conditioning; to bring each one to light, to examine it, to let it go, and to investigate deeper.

In our investigation, we are essentially encountering an idea of a self that is perpetuated through the notion of separateness, a notion that the self is everything that's encapsulated in this bag of skin, distinct from everything else. We are dealing with an idea of a self that we need to assert, protect, and reinforce through our efforts to delineate a boundary between the illusions of what is "inside" and "outside" of the self. We are dealing with an idea of a self that we constantly reaffirm through an internal dialogue.

We talk to ourselves. We are preoccupied with a private conversation that is usually concerned with the past or the future-the past which has already happened and doesn't exist anymore, and the future which hasn't yet happened and similarly doesn't exist. While we talk to ourselves, reifying the self through the incessant chatter of "here I am, this is me, that is them," we miss the moment-to-moment reality of our lives.

When we miss the moment, we miss our life. The moment is where our life takes place. Wrapped up in our inner conversation, most of us go through life only vaguely aware of the moment-to-moment reality. We eat, but we don't taste; we look, but we don't see; we listen, but we don't hear; we love, but we don't feel. We are thinking, preoccupied with our self-perpetuated dramas. All the data of the moment is available to us, but somehow cognition does not take place. Our life slips by and we barely notice it in passing.

Through the stillness and openness of silent sitting in meditation, little by little, an awareness begins to be born. We learn, moment by moment, to be in the moment. We begin to see our internal dialogue. We become aware of how much time we spend chasing thoughts and how little time we spend awake to our lives. In engaging zazen, we notice our thoughts, we let go of our thoughts, and we return our attention to the experience of our breath. We come back to this moment. In letting go of our thoughts, in letting go of the idea of the self, we reclaim our life. We begin to develop the power of concentration, the ability to put our mind where we want it, when we want it there, for as long as we want it there. And that is no small thing. That is the pearl of stillness.

The first stage lasts as long as we need to let go of the baggage we are carrying on our backs. It depends on what we are bringing into the present. There are no shortcuts. We need to deal with all of the thoughts that are churning in our mind, obstructing our clarity. We cannot approach the point of stillness if we have a mind that's like a monkey, jumping all over the place. And yet, we can't simply let go of our thoughts unless we examine them and deal with them. We can ignore, minimize, or deny them for a while, but they're still there. And they will reassert themselves, screaming for attention, steering our actions.

An unexamined life is a perilous life. Real spiritual investigation is not about expression or suppression. It is about investigation and waking up. It is not about sugar-coating our conditioning in spiritual notions and exercises. That's hiding. That's not yet spiritual practice. Practice is exhaustive self-examination. It is in the study of the self that we empower ourselves. In the stillness that emerges we learn to trust ourselves.

The poem describing the first stage of a spiritual journey says:

Vigorously cutting a path through the brambles, you search for the ox;

Wide rivers, eternal mountains, the path seems endless.

With strength depleted, and mind exhausted, you cannot find it.

There is only the gentle rustle of maple leaves, and the cicadas' evening song.

The experience of "strength depleted, mind exhausted" is a familiar one to people who are beginning a spiritual journey. We are searching but we cannot find our way. It seems like there is no end to the struggle. The brambles are the barriers we discover in our lives-the ideas, the postures, the patterns of behavior that obstruct our freedom. They are the cause of our suffering and bring us to practice in the first place. They are encountered directly when we start practicing.

The path is not clear. It is easy to lose track of it. There are numerous choices, forks in the road. Which path is the right path? Do I need a teacher? Can I mix different spiritual practices? That is the undergrowth that we have to struggle our way through. Crossing rivers, entering mountains-the further we go, the more it seems endless. Distractions abound. And that's how we end up very exhausted and depleted. But at the same time the poem tells us that "there is only the gentle rustling of maple leaves, and the cicadas' evening song." The reality that we will come home to one day is right here, right under our noses.

The first stage of practice has to do with learning to let go, with making ourselves empty and receptive. Working with the breath, using the experience of our breath to anchor ourselves in the moment, we become aware of the activity of the mind, its constant running commentary. We begin to quiet and focus the mind, finding the center of our being, returning easily to the still point again and again. When our concentration and the single-pointedness of mind have been developed, we begin to move into the second stage.

Excerpted from Riding the Ox Home by John Daido Loori Copyright © 1999 by Mountains and Rivers Order
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Editor's Note
Searching for the Ox 1
Finding Traces of the Ox 11
Seeing the Ox 21
Catching the Ox 27
Taming the Ox 35
Riding the Ox Home 43
Forgetting the Ox 49
Transcending the Ox 55
Returning to the Source 61
Entering the Marketplace 67
Glossary 81
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