The Ten Ox-herding Story

I came across this concept when I was reading Ray Long’s The Key Poses of Yoga and was able to relate to it in so many levels. The Ten Ox Herding Pictures, according to Wikipedia, is a series of short poems and accompanying pictures used in the Zen tradition to illustrate the stages of a practitioner’s progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment, as well as his or her subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom.


Look here for the pictures and here for the video.


While originally the ox here is used as a metaphor for enlightenment, in this book it was used as a metaphor for “body clairvoyance”. Big words! You might be wondering what that means. According to Ray Long’s book,

“Body clairvoyance refers to the ability of the awakened body to anticipate an action and use the most efficient muscles to accomplish it. Practicing yoga creates this type of phenomenon, a feeling of “knowing” what to do. When the brain sees a combination of actions like The Psoas Awakening Series ( there are 5 poses in the series found in this book), it begins to automatically use the muscle in unrelated actions.”


I created this table below listing down the original story of Ten Ox Herding and then how it’s interpreted in the seek of enlightenment (ox is our mind) and, based on Ray Long’s book, the seek for body clairvoyance (in this example, ox is our psoas muscle).


Original story

Interpretation in the seek of enlightenment

Interpretation in the seek of body clairvoyance

1. In Search of the Bull

In the pasture of the world,

I endlessly push aside the tall

grasses in search of the Ox.

Following unnamed rivers,

lost upon the interpenetrating

paths of distant mountains,

My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the Ox.

Humans are different from animals in that they can think and reflect. It is our thinking and reflecting that brings us to wonder or question about ourselves and life. Some people seek a reason for life, they seek the ox. At first they seek outside of themselves, looking at philosophy, science, occult matters, etc. Perhaps wealth and personal possessions have been amassed to cover the aches and discomforts of the heart and mind, and now the person wearies of this, it no longer works.

First one learns that the psoas exists.

2. Discovery of the Footprints

Along the riverbank under the trees,

I discover footprints.

Even under the fragrant grass,

I see his prints.

Deep in remote mountains they are found.

These traces can no more be hidden

than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

Eventually the sincere seeker discovers that what must be investigated is the mind itself. Perhaps the seeker has fortunate karma ripening, coming into contact with the Buddha Dharma. It is when we stop looking to external things to save or liberate us.

One gains “head knowledge” of the muscle function.

3. Perceiving the Bull

I hear the song of the nightingale.

The sun is warm, the wind is mild,

willows are green along the shore –

Here no Ox can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head,

those majestic horns?

Here the person sees the tail of the ox. There is the realization that one has found the true path for salvation and liberation. What a relief it is! The world can seem a much sweeter place. However, the ox has not yet been grasped.

One experiences the “body knowledge” of the muscle. This is the first “twitch” of activation.

4. Catching the Bull

I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power

are inexhaustible.

He charges to the high plateau

far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

At this stage the person has engaged in their Buddhist practice. Here the mind is apparent most of the time. No longer is the person lost in delusion, being not even aware of how they really are. For the first time the undisciplined activities of the mind are addressed. At first it seems so difficult with old, habitual patterns of thought rising up and overwhelming us. Sometimes our mind runs wild. Sometimes it is stuck, not moving with circumstances.

Using conscious control, it is now possible to regulate in rough fashion, the force of contraction.

5. Taming the Bull

The whip and rope are necessary,

Else he might stray off down

some dusty road.

Being well-trained, he becomes

naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Here Buddhist practice continues diligently. Many means of help are used. These can be meditation, mantras, temple services, chanting, sila (precepts), etc. They can also be the kinship of fellow Buddhist practitioners, guides and teachers.

As the negativities of the mind are quieted it is possible to practise self-cultivation in one’s ordinary life. Here one is not fully overwhelmed by the habitual, negative aspects of the mind. It has become clear what Buddhist practice is.

Functional regulation of contraction and relaxation becomes refined.

6. Riding the Bull Home

Mounting the Ox, slowly

I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones

through the evening.

Measuring with hand-beats

the pulsating harmony,

I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody

will join me.

Here the oxherder is playing a flute while riding the ox. The ox still has its nose-ring and rope. But now the oxherder no longer has to hold the rope and pull the ox back to the way. Buddhist practice and self-cultivation have become a natural activity. The sense organs are purified, meaning that the person is aware of the environment but does not generate feelings of greed, anger or lust from the contact with outer things.

One can now activate the muscles at will. This is the beginning of “body clairvoyance”.

7. The Bull Transcended

Astride the Ox, I reach home.

I am serene. The Ox too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling

I have abandoned the whip and ropes.

In the beginning stages it is like swimming upstream. Hard, diligent practice is needed to make headway against the current of the mind. Here there is no need for the swimmer. The swimmer and the water have become one. Practice is no longer done for a goal, to get somewhere. Life itself is practice.

The muscle now automatically activates whenever needed and exactly as needed – no more, no less. This is body clairvoyance.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Whip, rope, person, and Ox –

all merge in No Thing.

This heaven is so vast,

no message can stain it.

How may a snowflake exist

in a raging fire.

Here are the footprints of

the Ancestors.

In the eighth picture there is no ox and no person. Is a fish aware of the water it swims in? When there is a subject, looking out, then there is an object. When there is an object then there is a subject to know it. If there is one then there must be two. One is only in comparison to something.

This is the stage beyond all dualities, of no inside, no outside; no subject and object; no person and environment. It is said there is no words to describe this stage. How can you grasp yourself, is it by pointing at your face and saying this is me, or by describing ourselves? When we are truly ourselves we would be able to separate from ourselves. When one has become one with self-nature there is no longer self-nature.

Integration. Rest. Connection. Savasana.

9. Reaching the Source

Too many steps have been taken

returning to the root and the source.

Better to have been blind and deaf

from the beginning!

Dwelling in one’s true abode,

unconcerned with and without –

The river flows tranquilly on

and the flowers are red.

There is a famous Ch’an/Zen saying that in the beginning mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Then, at a particular point in practise, represented by the eighth picture, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. After this mountains truly are mountains and rivers truly are rivers.

This stage is to know the world in its true nature. Rivers flow and a flower is red. There is no more self-consciousness reactions to distort the world.

The knowledge is now consolidated and the circuitry unlocked.

10. Return to Society

Barefooted and naked of breast,

I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden,

and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the dead trees

become alive.

Here is an enlightened person. Bare of self adornments and pretensions. There is only the wholesome outflowing of an enlightened mind.

The dead trees become alive refers to two things

1. There is a Ch’an/Zen saying ‘The flower blossoms on the withered branch’. It means that when our negativities have completely withered then our Buddha-nature blossoms, and

2. It is the activity of the enlightened person to awaken the unenlightened.

The cycle begins again, each time more exquisite, each more arduous. But we know the process and the way.


While the original of this concept is found in Zen Buddhism, but as seen in the book, it can be interpreted in a non-religious manner. When I first came across this concept, I thought of one Indonesian proverb:

“Berakit-rakit ke hulu, berenang-renang ke tepian

Bersakit-sakit dahulu, bersenang-senang kemudian”

which pretty much means “no pain, no gain”.


In order to attain enlightenment, one must be able to know first, then learn how to conquer the mind through many practices such as meditation. At the beginning, it’s hard but through consistent practice and discipline, one can master to control the mind and attain enlightenment. At later stage, what’s received must be given, so we should help those to achieve enlightenment.


In yoga practice or in any of your attempts to master anything, it’s the same concept. First you need to be aware of the existence, then you shall pursue for more knowledge which then brought you to more practice. At the beginning, there is the pain, the struggle, etc. However with discipline (waking up at least 45 mins before sunrise everyday to practice yoga and meditation, according to our beloved guru!), our body and mind can be trained and reach the full potential. And our teaching to our students in later day, will be our way to close off the cycle.


This is my 4th blog in this yoga teacher training course. And again, there’s no conclusion in this blog. 🙂 I can’t tell you how you should use this concept or even whether or not you should use this concept to begin with. That’s up to you. I’m in my 7th weekend, I have 3 more weekends to go to the end of this course. I have to say the discipline that was introduced and expected out of me and my classmates since day 1 has been eye-opening, life-changing and I can feel the difference in my body. These days, I’m automatically awakened around 6 AM. If I don’t do kapalabhati and nadi shodana each morning, I feel weird. If I don’t do some asanas in the morning, I feel guilty. I now even feel something that I couldn’t imagine I would feel before I started this yoga course, I’m actually looking forward to a meditation session.


I think I’m at the stage of catching the Ox. My discipline is not 100% yet, sometimes I’m still battling with myself whether I should sleep 5 more minutes or kick myself out of the bed and start doing kapalabhati. And if you’re my classmates reading this, you know my struggle with adho mukha svanasana because of my tight hamstrings. I need to tame my hamstrings, my hip flexors and many others too that I need to be aware of first. A lot of realization to do, a lot of taming to do, a lot of practice and discipline to do as well. But I’m looking forward to it.


I believe life flourish when there is learning and yoga allows me to always learning.


Thank you to my two teachers, Master Paalu and Master Wei Ling, for your patience and generosity sharing your knowledge with us. Thank you to my group mates and my classmates, for the experience and sharing.


Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.


Krisianto Gondohutomo – YTT200 – Sep 2017

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