The Ten Ox Herding Pictures

The Ten Ox Herding pictures from Taoism and Zen-Buddhism, show ten breaths of self-remembering. In picture one to six, a child is searching for the bull (symbolizing the lower self) and then struggling to bring it under control. (For more information on the symbol of the bull, see Lower Self: Animal Nature.) In our normal state of consciousness we are not aware of the lower self because we are the lower self.

The first three Ox Herding pictures, illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki

Only when we begin to have self-awareness, and one`s identity is in the steward or the mind of Tao (the part in one, that makes effort to awaken from the state of sleep we spend our lives in), do we begin to become aware of our lower self.

Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet): From the lower self at every moment issues an act of deceit.

The child symbolizes the ruling factor or the mind of Tao, which Gurdjieff called the steward. The steward or mind of Tao is represented as a child because one cannot be artificial and complicated if one wants to experience the state of Divine Presence, one needs to be simple and innocent, like a child.

The Bible, Matthew 18:3: Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the first six pictures, action is used to bring the lower self under control. In picture six the lower self is under control.

The Secret of the Golden Flower: The secret of the elixir of life consists in using action in order to attain non-action.
Liu Yiming (18th c. Taoist master, Awakening the Tao): The great Tao is natural and spontaneous, without artifice — Why is it necessary to use a method of deliberate action? The reason it is indeed necessary to use the method is to get rid of degeneracy. When all degenerations are effectively done away with, then the method is not needed, just as a raft needed to cross a river is to be left behind once the river is crossed and a net needed to catch fish is to be put away once the fish has been caught.
Liu Yiming - Commentary on Understanding Reality by Zhang Boduan (11th c. Taoist master): The mind of Tao is the primordial jewel of reality, it is produced from within the temporal; there is a time to use it, and a time not to use it. Before you have crystallized the elixir, you need to use the real knowlng of the mind of Tao to govern the conscious knowledge of the human mind. After the human mind is quiet, and discriminatory awareness is extinguished, the mind of Tao then has no function.

The Ten Ox Herding pictures, illustrated by Tomikichiro Tokuriki

Manjushri Bodhisattva
seated on his lion

Shiva with ten arms on the bull Nandi,
15th-18th century Siam


Journey to the West Ch. 29: “Bodhisattva,” said Monkey, “he's the blue-haired lion from under your throne.” The Bodhisattva said a spell and shouted, “Return to the Truth, beast. What are you waiting for?” Only then did the fiend-king return to his original form, Manjusri placed a lotus-blossom over the monster to tame him, and sat on his back.


Al-Jilani (12th c. Sufi): When the believer has mastered his lower self, so that it serves as a riding mount beneath him, the deeds of his heart will shine forth upon his face.
I Ching (Chinese text): When the spirit of heaven rules in man, his animal nature takes its appropriate place.
Rumi (13th c. Sufi mystic and poet): Jesus on the lean donkey, this is an emblem of how the rational intellect should control the animal-soul. Let your spirit be strong like Jesus. If that part becomes weak, then the worn-out donkey grows to a dragon.

Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey,
Chartres Cathedral, France

Lao Tzu on a buffalo
















Gaining control over the lower self, through the gradual awakening of the Higher Self, is presented as a process of six stages by all esoteric traditions.

Liu Yiming (commentary on Understanding Reality by Zhang Boduan): The point where one yang begins to move is when the yang light of real knowledge of the mind of Tao stirs but is not yet very active: only then is a glimpse of the root of heaven revealed. At this time you should quickly set about increasing the fire, gathering yang and putting it into the furnace of evolution, gradually gathering, gradually refining, from vagueness to clarity, from one yang to complete purity of six yangs.

On the left, the I-Ching hexagram 'Return" with one yang and five yins, on the right the hexagram "Heaven" with 6 yangs


Six figures rising up from darkness into the light (The Ascent of the Blessed (1500, Hieronymus Bosch, The Palazzo Ducale, Venice)

Zhuangzi (4th c. BCE Taoist philosopher): One who mounts the truth of Heaven and Earth, rides the changes of the six breaths, and then roams amongst the boundless.
The I Ching p 371, commentary on hexagram #1, the Creative (Wilhelm/Baynes edition): The holy man, who understands the mysteries of creation inherent in end and beginning, becomes superior to the limitations of the transitory. For him, the meaning of time is that in it, the stages of growth can unfold in a clear sequence. He is mindful at every moment and uses the six stages of growth as if they were six dragons (the image attributed to the individual lines) on which he mounts to heaven.
The Bible, Exodus 20:11: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.
Liu Yiming (The Taoist I Ching) Commentary on hexagram #7 Return: Return is developmental. Reversing the path, returning in seven days, it is beneficial to have a place to go. The way to do it involves working in sequence, restoring it gradually; one cannot restore it immediately, or even if one does restore it immediately it cannot be stabilized. It is necessary to first refine oneself and master the mind, waiting for the time to act. Therefore, "reversing the path, "reality returns" in 'seven days."

After having control over the lower self, prolonged presence can occur, symbolized by the following four oxherding pictures. They are four breaths of rest and emptiness. In six breaths or steps of action, one uses short reminders to be present, and then one stays present for four more breaths.

Liu Yiming (commentary on Understanding Reality by Zhang Boduan): Spiritual alchemy must start with doing, restoring the primordial while in the midst of the temporal, recovering one's original jewel of life. When the jewel of life is in the hand, one preserves unity, traveling the path of nondoing, thereby realizing the original essence of real emptiness. What can be done for all the quietists who only know nondoing and do not know doing?
Chao Pi Chen (20th c. Taoist Master): This immortal fourfold breath, is hidden in the original cavity of the spirit, behind the spot between the eyes.

Six large and four small Jizo Bodhisattvas
(Meaka-Fudoson Nankokuji Temple, Tokyo)

Nagarjuna (2nd c. Indian Buddhist philosopher): The first six stages may be considered as preparatory. The decisive stage (the seventh stage) is the stage where the bodhisattva attains complete freedom from all sense of clinging. It is the stage where he obtains the Dharmakaya (the body of truth).
Kukai (9th c. Founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism): The six elements produce the four kinds of Dharmakaya.


Guanyin Boddhisattva with four arms raised up and six limbs below.
Amida Buddha is seated on the head.

All esoteric traditions speak about ten stages through which a man becomes purified, knows God, or reaches Heaven or Paradise, all referring to the presence of the Higher Self.

The Prajnaparamita sutra (Buddhist text): Bodhisattvas must unfold the potent knowledge of Prajnaparamita into the ten modes of purifying and healing activity, the four spheres of formlessness and the six forms of super-knowledge.
Huineng (6th Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, 7th c.): Learned Audience, if you constantly perform the ten good deeds, paradise will appear to you at once.
Theophanis the Monk, Philokalia (Greek Orthodox Christian text): Ten steps that lead one up to heaven. Ten steps through which a man knows God. The ladder may seem short indeed, but if your heart can inwardly experience it, you will find a wealth the world cannot contain.






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