Ten Bulls

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Vietnamese water puppet depicting a scene in the parable.

Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures (十牛; Chinese: shíniú Japanese: jūgyū, korean: sipwoo) is a series of short poems and accompanying drawings used in the Zen tradition to describe the stages of a practitioner's progress toward enlightenment,[web 1] and his or her return to society to enact wisdom and compassion.


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 Gopalaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 33). It is also used in the commentaries, especially the one on the Maha Satipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10).[web 2] As Buddhism spread throughout South-East Asia, the simile of the bull spread with it.[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, Alan Watts included a description of the Ten Bulls in The Spirit of Zen.[2] The pictures were eventually to influence the work of John Cage, particularly in his emphasis on rhythmic silence, and on images of nothingness.[3] 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.[4]

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][note 3] 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.
  3. ^ Piya Tan gives a full description of these stages; see Piya Tan (2004), The Taming of the Bull. Mind-training and the formation of Buddhist traditions, dharmafarer.org


  1. ^ Jinwul 2009, p. 139.
  2. ^ Watts, Alan. The Spirit of Zen, pg 62
  3. ^ Pritchett 1996, p. 60-69.
  4. ^ 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