Ten Bulls

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Vietnamese water puppet depicting a scene in the parable.

Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures (十牛; Japanese: jūgyū, Chinese: shíniú) is a series of short poems and accompanying pictures used in the Zen tradition to illustrate the stages of a practitioner's progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment,[web 1] as well as his or her subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom.


Ten Bulls (by Tokuriki Tomikichiro, 1902–99).

The calf, bull or ox is one of the earliest similes for meditation practice. It comes from the Maha Goplaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 33). It is also used in the commentaries, especially the one on the Maha Satipahna Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) and the Satipahna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10).[web 2] With the spread of Buddhism troughout South-East Asia, the simile of the bull also spread.[web 2]

The well-known ten ox-herding pictures emerged in China in the 12th century. D.T. Suzuki[web 3] mentions four Chinese versions of the Oxherding Pictures, by Ching-chu (Jp. Seikyo)(11th century),[web 4] Tzu-te Hui (Jp. Jitoku)(1090-1159),[web 4] an unknown author, and Kuòān Shīyuǎn (Jp. Kaku-an) (12th century).[web 3] The best-known of these is the version by Kuòān Shīyuǎn.[web 3]

Probably the first series was made by Ching-chu (清居, Jp. Seikyo) (11th century),[web 4] who may have been a contemporary of Kuòān Shīyuǎn. In Ching-chu's version only five pictures are being used, and the ox's colour changes from dark to white, representing the gradual development of the practitioner, ending in the disappearance of the practitioner.[web 3]

Tzu-te Hui (自得慧暉, Zide Huihui, Jp. Jitoku) (1090-1159)[web 4] made a version with six pictures. The sixth one goes beyond the stage of absolute emptiness, where Ching-chu's version ends. Just like Ching-chu's version, the ox grows whiter along the way.[web 3][note 1]

A third version by an unknown author, with ten pictures, was most popular in China.[web 3] It belongs to the Ching-chu and Tzu-te Hui series of pictures,[web 3] and has a somewhat different serie of pictures compared to Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version.[web 5] The 1585-edition contains a preface by Chu-hung, and it has ten pictures, each of which is preceded by Pu-ming's poem, of whom Chu-hung furtherwise provides no information. In this version too the ox's colour changes from dark to white.[web 3][note 1]

The best known version of the oxherding pictures was drawn by the 12th century Chinese Rinzai Chán (Zen) master Kuòān Shīyuǎn (廓庵師遠, Jp. Kaku-an Shi-en), who also wrote accompanying poems and introductory words attached to the pictures.[web 3] In Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version there is no whitening process, [web 3] and his series also doesn't end with mere emptiness, or absolute truth, but shows a return to the world, depicting Putai, the laughing Buddha.[web 3] According to Chi Kwang Sunim, they may also represent a Zen Buddhist interpretation of the ten Bodhisattva bhumi, the ten stages on the Bodhisattva-path.[web 6]

In Japan, Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version gained a wide circulation, the earliest one probably belonging to the fifteenth century.[web 3] They first became widely known in the West after their inclusion in the 1957 book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Liaoan Qingyu (了菴清欲, Jp. Ryōan Seiyoku) (1288-1363) made another version with five pictures.[web 7]

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls[edit]

Verses by Kuòān Shīyuǎn;[web 4] translation by Senzaki Nyogen (千崎如幻) (1876–1958) and Paul Reps (1895-1990);[web 4] paintings traditionally attributed to Tenshō Shūbun (天章周文) (1414-1463).[web 8]


Chan Buddhism[edit]

The ox-herding pictures had an immediate and extensive influence on the Chinese practice of Chan Buddhism.[1]

Western reception[edit]

In the West, they were eventually to influence the work of John Cage, particularly in his emphasis on rhythmic silence, and on images of nothingness.[2] At the same time, through the last picture especially - 'In the Marketplace' – they have provided a conceptual umbrella for those Buddhists seeking a greater engagement with the post-industrial global marketplace.[3]

Ten Elephants[edit]

An equivalent series of stages is depicted in the Nine Stages of Tranquility,[web 2] used in the Mahamudra tradition, in which the mind is represented by an elephant and a monkey.[web 10][web 11][note 2] Piya Tan describes these stages as follows:[web 2]

  1. A monk (the meditator), holding a rope (mindfulness) (Tib denpa; Skt smti, Pali sati) in his left hand and a goad (full awareness) in his right, runs after an elephant led by a monkey. Here the meditator has no control over his mind.
  2. He almost catches up with the elephant.
  3. The monk throws a noose around the elephant’s neck and it looks back; the mind is beginning to be restrained by mindfulness. The rabbit on the elephant’s back represents torpor which has by then become subtle.
  4. As the elephant (the mind) becomes more obedient, the rope (mindfulness) needs less pulling.
  5. The elephant is being led by the rope and the hook, and the monkey follows behind. There is less restlessness now; mainly full awareness is used.
  6. Both the animals follow behind and the monk does not have to look back (he focusses his attention continuously on his mind); the rabbit (subtle restlessness) has disappeared.
  7. The elephant is left on its own doing without the need of rope or hook; the monkey takes leave. Torpor and restlessness—both mild—ocur only occasionally here.
  8. The elephant, now completely white, follows behind the man; the mind is obedient and there is no torpor or restlessness but some energy is still needed to concentrate.
  9. The monk sits in meditation while the elephant sleeps at his feet; the mind is able to concentrate without effort for long periods of time and there is great joy and peace. The flying monk represents zest and lightness of the body.
  10. The monk sits on the elephant; he now finds true calm (Tib zhine, Skt amatha, Pali samatha) and needs less energy to concentrate.
  11. In the last stage, the monk on the elephant’s back holds a sword (the realization of emptiness, sunyat) and cuts off the two black lines representing the obstacle to full knowledge (jñey’varaa) and the defiling obstacle (ke’varaa). The term varaa is a synonym for nvaraa (mental hindrance) (D 1:246, Sn 66 1005, Nc 379, Divy 378). The monk is here cultivating insight (Tib lhagthong, Skt vipayan, Pali vipassan) and on his way to the perfection of wisdom.

The Dharma Fellowship', a Kagyu (Mahamudra) organisation, notes that the practice starts with studying and pondering the dharma, where-after the practice of meditation commences.[web 12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b See Terebess Asia Online, Three Oxherding Versions Compared
  2. ^ This formulation originates with Asaṅga (4th CE), delineating the nine mental abidings in his Abhidharmasamuccaya and the Śrāvakabhūmi chapter of his Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra. It is also found in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra of Maitreyanātha, which shows considerable similarity in arrangement and content to the Bodhisattva-bhūmi-śāstra.


  1. ^ Jinwul 2009, p. 139.
  2. ^ Pritchett 1996, p. 60-69.
  3. ^ Goodman 1999, p. 352.


Printed sources[edit]

  • Goodman, R. A. (1999), Modern Organizations and Emerging Conundrums, Lexington Books 
  • Jinwol (2009), Seon Experience for Ecological Awakening. In: Religion, Ecology & Gender, pp.131-146, LIT Verlag Münster 
  • Pritchett, J. (1996), The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press 


Further reading[edit]

  • Yamada, Mumon (2004), Lectures On The Ten Oxherding Pictures, University of Hawaii Press 
  • Samy, AMA (2005), Zen: Awakening to Your Original Face, Cre-A 
  • Shibayama, Zenkei (2012), A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, Tuttle Publishing 
  • Daido Loori, John (2013), The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training, Shambhala Publications 

External links[edit]

Zide Huihui (Jp. Jitoku Keiki) (1090-1159) version (six pictures)
Chinese Pu-Ming (Jp. Fumyō) version (ten pictures)
Kuòān Shīyuǎn (12th century) version (ten pictures)
Extended commentaries
Taming the Elephant