Guoan Shiyuan (12th century)

  • The ten oxherding pictures as the way of Zen

    The picture and poem series by the Chinese Zen master Guoan Shiyuan is unique in the history of mysticism. Nowhere else has the spiritual path been described in such a simple and profound way.

    In the 12th and 13th centuries, Chinese Zen Buddhism made use of picture and poem series to illustrate the spiritual path to enlightenment with the aid of the motifs of ox and circle. The circle symbolises the final enlightenment, nirvana, and the ox the true self of the disciple. In Zen Buddhism, becoming Buddha means nothing else than to contemplate one's own nature.

    The herdboy in Guoan's series is initially stumbling in the dark. He does not know what he seeks. On his path he must overcome various obstacles before he can catch the ox and take him home. The awakening to the true self, the 'insight into one's own essential nature', only happens when the self is forgotten. At this point, the series could end with the nirvana circle which symbolises perfect enlightenment. But instead Guoan adds two more pictures to show that only after the awakening can one see everything as it truly is. In the last picture, the enlightened adept, beaming with joy, strolls as a Bodhisattva out into the world's hustle and bustle and another herdboy crosses his path.