Ten Verses on Oxherding, Zen master Guoan Shiyuan

From the The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
十牛頌図巻 Ten Verses on Oxherding
1278, Kamakura period, Japan

Riding the Ox, 1278 Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art,In Zen, a herdboy’s search for his lost oxen has served as a parable for a practitioner’s pursuit of awakening since Zen’s early history in China.

In the eleventh century, the Song-dynasty Zen master Guoan Shiyuan (active ca. 1150) codified the parable into ten verses (gāthā), recorded and illustrated in this handscroll.

The parable proceeds from the herdboy losing his ox and following its tracks to recover the animal to, in the next-to-last verse, transcending this world.

In a final stage representing the attainment of Buddhist enlightenment, the herdboy becomes one with Budai (Japanese: Hotei), the manifestation of the future Buddha Miroku (Sanskrit: Maitreya).

Dated by an inscription to 1278, the present scroll is the earliest known Japanese illustrated copy of the parable and the only extant version with colour illustrations.

Click on the first photo to view the paintings and read the verses.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 225
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028

The Ten Ox-Herding Songs

The handscroll is composed of sections of text interspersed with painted scenes, ten in all. At the beginning is a preface, entitled “The Ten Ox-Herding Songs by the Monk Guoan, of Liangshan, Dingzhou,” attributed to a disciple of Guoan named Ciyuan, which explains in twenty-four lines the basic doctrine of Buddhism—that all sentient beings possess the potential to attain Buddhahood. The preface is followed by the allegory of the ox herder, a seeker of truth. Each of the ten steps he must take to achieve enlightenment is represented by a heading, an explanatory paragraph in prose, and a four-line verse that reiterates the concept expressed in the prose section. The verse is followed by a picture in a circular frame, which most likely symbolizes the primary Zen principles of perfection and completion. At the end of the scroll is an inscription that gives the date as “Kōan boin chūshun” —the eighth month of the first year of the Kōan era (1278)—as well as a name that may be read as Kōgi or Kōgi’s kao, an abbreviated signature

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Categories: Art, Buddhism, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, Foundations of Buddhism, History, News & events

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