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
In Zen, a herdboy’s search for his lost oxen has served as a parable for a practitioner’s pursuit of enlightenment since this Buddhist sect’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.
1. Looking for the Ox: A herdboy dressed as a boy of Tang-dynasty China has been separated from his ox. He is confused by the several mountain paths, and as doubt assails him he gingerly tries one of the roads. Verse: One aimlessly pushes the grasses aside in search. The rivers are wide, the mountains far away, and the path becomes longer. Exhausted and dispirited, one hears only the late autumn cicadas shrilling in the maple woods. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
2. Seeing the Footprints of the Ox: By studying the teachings of the sutras, the boy begins to understand the meaning of the first signs he encounters—the footprints of the ox—and he resolutely sets out on his journey. Verse: By the water, and under the trees, there are numerous traces. Fragrant grasses grow thickly, but did you see the ox? Even in the depths of the distant mountain forest, How could the upturned nostrils of the ox be concealed? —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
3. Seeing the Ox: The boy spies the ox, whose head and back are visible. A faithful rendition of the verse, the scene depicts the ox, his head crowned with stately horns; the sun is bright reel, and a nightingale sings. Verse: A bush warbler sings upon a branch, warm sun, soft breezes, green willows on the bank. Nowhere can the ox escape to hide, but those majestic horns are difficult to draw. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
4. Catching the Ox: The ox, which has been roaming in the wilderness, is wild and difficult to catch. With the energy of his whole being, the herdboy tries to subdue it. Verse: With all my energy, I seize the ox. His will is strong, and his power endless, and he cannot be tamed easily. Sometimes he charges to the high plateau. And there he stays, deep in the mist. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
5. Herding the Ox: When the beast is properly attended, it will grow pure and docile.Thus the boy must keep a firm grip on the cord; he must not waver. Verse: One does not let go of the whip or the rope, afraid it will stray and choose the dusty mist. A well-tended ox becomes gentle, and even with no rope, Will follow people by himself. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
6. Returning Home: His mission is accomplished, and the boy’s heart is full as he rides the ox homeward. Verse: Riding the bull, I leisurely wander toward home. Exotic flute melodies echo through sunset clouds. Each beat and each tune is indescribably profound. No words are needed for those who understand music. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
7. The Ox Forgotten, the Boy Remains: Back home, the ox is no longer seen. The red sun is bright in the sky; the boy sits serenely, his whip and rope also forgotten. Verse: Riding on the ox, he has come home. There is no ox there, and he is at ease. Although the sun is high, he is still dreamy. The whip and rope abandoned in the thatched hut. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
8. Both Boy and Ox Forgotten: Serene emptiness, a state of mind from which all desire has been eliminated, is symbolized by the image of the empty circle. Verse: Whip, rope, man, and ox, all are non-existent. The blue sky being vast, no message can be heard, Just as the snowflake cannot last in the flaming red furnace. After this state, one can join the ancient teachers. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
9. Returning to the Source: The waters are blue, the mountains green, and the flowers a vivid red, yet the boy has transcended all manifestations of the transitory world. Verse: In returning to the fundamentals and going back to the source, I had to work so hard. Perhaps it would be better to be blind and deaf. Being in the hut, I do not see what is outside. The river flowing tranquilly, the flower simply being red. —Trans. Gen Sakamot
10. Entering the City: The boy appears as Hotei, a potbellied, bare-chested wanderer, the reincarnation of Miroku, the Buddha of the Future, whose presence brings Buddhahood to all sentient beings. By merging with Hotei, the herdboy reaches his final destination. Verse: He enters the city barefoot, with chest exposed. Covered in dust and ashes, smiling broadly. No need for the magic powers of the gods and immortals. Just let the dead tree bloom again. —Trans. Gen Sakamoto
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 225
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028
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
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