Ten Bulls

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Vietnamese water puppet depicting a scene in the parable.

Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures (Chinese: shíniú 十牛 , Japanese: jūgyūzu 十牛図 , korean: sipwoo 십우) 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 their return to society to enact wisdom and compassion.


Scriptural origins[edit]

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). As Buddhism spread throughout South-East Asia, the simile of the bull spread with it.[web 2]

Chinese pictures[edit]

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

Early versions[edit]

The first series was probably made by Ching-chu in the 11th century, who may have been a contemporary of Kuòān Shīyuǎn.[web 4] There are only five pictures in Ching-chu's version 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) made a version with six pictures. The sixth one goes beyond the stage of absolute emptiness, where Ching-chu's version ends.[web 4] 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 the most popular in China. It derives from the Ching-chu and Tzu-te Hui series of pictures, and has a somewhat different series of pictures compared to Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version.[web 3][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 provides no further information. In this version the ox's colour changes from dark to white.[web 3][note 1]

Famous versions[edit]

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. In Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version, there is no whitening process, 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. In Japan, Kuòān Shīyuǎn's version gained a wide circulation, the earliest one probably belonging to the fifteenth century.[web 3]

Liaoan Qingyu (了菴清欲, Jp. Ryōan Seiyoku) (1288-1363) made another version with five pictures.[web 6]

Kuòān Shīyuǎn's Ten Bulls[edit]

Verses by Kuòān Shīyuǎn; 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 7]

Influence and cultural legacy[edit]

The ox-herding pictures had an immediate and extensive influence on the Chinese practice of Chan Buddhism.[1] According to Chi Kwang Sunim, they may represent a Zen Buddhist interpretation of the ten Bodhisattva bhumi, the ten stages on the Bodhisattva-path.[web 9]

The pictures 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. Alan Watts included a description of the Ten Bulls in The Spirit of Zen.[2] The pictures went on to influence the work of John Cage, particularly in his emphasis on rhythmic silence, and on images of nothingness.[3] The pictures, especially the last one ('In the Marketplace'), have provided a conceptual umbrella for those Buddhists seeking a greater engagement with the post-industrial global marketplace.[4]

Cat Stevens' sixth studio album Catch Bull at Four is a reference to the 4th step towards enlightenment. On the album, the song Sitting refers to meditation, and the apprehensions that may result from the experiences resulting from enlightenment. Catch Bull at Four was commercially successful and spent 3 weeks at number one in the Billboard album charts in 1972.

In the 1989 South Korean film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, an ox escapes into the forest and one of the protagonists, a young boy, attempts to hunt it down through the bushes.[5][6][7] During the opening scene of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a water buffalo stands tied to a tree before breaking loose and wandering into a forest.[8][9]

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. ^ Jinwol 2009, p. 139.
  2. ^ Watts, Alan. The Spirit of Zen, pg 62
  3. ^ Pritchett 1996, p. 60-69.
  4. ^ Goodman 1999, p. 352.
  5. ^ "Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?". dharma-documentaries. Dharma Documentaries. March 4, 2011. Retrieved May 23, 2022. And all the way through it is the recurring images of the widowed bird, the rushing waters, and an ox in the bushes, recalling the ox-herding drawings, that serve to link up the episodes. It is no coincidence that the filmmaker is a painter, and he sees the scenes in a painterly way.
  6. ^ "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?". bampfa. The Regents of the University of California. April 11, 2005. Retrieved May 23, 2022. As in a sequence alluding to the well-known ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism, everyday incidents promise potential knowledge.
  7. ^ Brennan, Sandra. "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?". Allmovie. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
  8. ^ Kohn, Eric (Mar 2, 2011). "Impenetrable Fantasy: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"". indiewire. IndieWire Media. Retrieved May 23, 2022.
  9. ^ Brody, Richard (March 2, 2011). "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives". newyorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved May 23, 2022. in an opening sequence, in which a water buffalo breaks free of its chain and withdraws deep into the jungle


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