Ox Herding Pictures 5: Taming the Ox

He must hold the nose-rope tight 
and not allow the Ox to roam, 
lest off to muddy haunts it should stray. 
Properly tended, it becomes clean and gentle. 
Untethered, it willingly follows its master. 

You have successfully caught the ox of your Buddha nature, but there’s still work to be done. Discipline is still needed: you must keep hold of the ox and put the dharma into practise so you can tame your mind. When you practice you feel more free and compassionate, but it only takes one tiny thing to go wrong, one bad day, and your old conditioning will kick back in. You may start to experience spontaneous joy and a sense of peace, but difficult emotions can still catch you by surprise and throw you off track. 

Ox Herding Pictures 4: Catching the Ox

He must tightly grasp the rope and not let it go, 
for the Ox still has unhealthy tendencies. 
Now it charges up to the highlands, 
now it loiters in a misty ravine. 

This stage of the path is all about discipline. You’ve finally discovered the truth about your Buddha Nature. It’s been hidden inside you all along, but you can’t control it. All your old conditioning, bad habits and, let’s face it, laziness, will work against you now. You have to work hard to maintain the vision of truth you’ve glimpsed. This is when your spiritual practice truly begins. 

Ox Herding Pictures 3: First Glimpse of the Ox

A nightingale warbles on a twig, 
the sun shines on undulating willows. 
There stands the Ox, where could it hide? 
That splendid head, those stately horns, 
what artist could portray them? 

This is where you get a glimpse of the truth you’re seeking. It isn’t full enlightenment because you only see the tail of the ox, but you realise that the truth of your Buddha Nature was hidden in plain sight all along. Now you know from your own experience that the dharma teachings are true. You no longer have to take others at their word. Faith is transformed into direct experience. 

Ox Herding Pictures 2: Finding the Tracks

Innumerable footprints has he seen 
in the forest and along the water’s edge. 
Over yonder does he see the trampled grass? 
Even the deepest gorges of the topmost mountains 
can’t hide this Ox’s nose which reaches right to heaven. 

By asking the right questions you begin to sense there might be more to life than you previously thought. You recognise that you can’t continue to live as you have, that you must find a solution to your problems. You can’t keep wandering around lost and confused, you need a route map or path that will take you through the wilderness of your doubt. 

Ox Herding Pictures 1: Seeking the Ox

Desolate through forests and fearful in jungles,
he is seeking an Ox which he does not find.
Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,
in deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.
Bone-tired, heart-weary, he carries on his search
for this something which he yet cannot find.
At evening he hears cicadas chirping in the trees.

The first stage of awakening is the search for meaning. This usually starts with looking outside yourself: for worldly pleasures, success, money, the perfect relationship, owning cool stuff, or filling your head with interesting ideas and philosophies. This is really an attempt to make your life more comfortable so you can avoid pain and suffering, but in the end, none of it works – at least, not for long.