Sources returnpage

Gentling the Bull

Category: Books sutras and myths

Gentling the Bull or the Ten Bull pictures is an allegory of the spiritual path.  It is by the 15th century Japanese Zen monk Shubun, but is traditionally attributed to Kakuan, a 12th century Chinese Zen master of the Rinzai lineage.  It has become a classic within Zen Buddhism and is a masterpiece of simple symbolism, spare, to the point and not at all easy to understand – which is often the point of really good symbolism – it makes you think and provides a means of discussion.

I have provided each of the pictures as an observation, but I have provided no interpretation, except for the cross reference to the symbols each picture contains, because I think it important that it continues to be discussed.  From of old, these pictures have been a favourite training analogy and are still used by present day Zen masters.

The pictures are always presented together with individual prefaces to each picture by Chi-yuan, a monk in the direct line of Kakuan, and with a set of three poems each by a different author, the first poem of which is by Kakuan himself.  These I have included with each observation.  I have obtained the translation from the book by The Venerable Myokyo-ni, but she in turn used the translations of D T Suzuki and Tsujimura-Buchner.

I have also included the foreword by Chi-yuan as an observation.

The pictures themselves are preserved in Shokoku-ji monastery in Kyoto, where Shubun was a monk.  And I have used these pictures rather than the hundreds of variations that have appeared since, simply because the others do not contain what Chi-yuan called the ‘deeply hidden subtleties’ of the originals.

Understanding the text

Key to understanding the text, is to understand what the symbol of the Bull represents and rather than me state, much as other commentators have done, what it is I want to explore the options.  From this you can make your own decisions.

To understand this you need to have the model of the Mind open for reference.

  • Autonomic system – In some commentaries, particularly interestingly enough, western commentaries, it is assumed that the Bull is the autonomic system – principally the sex urges, although all so called animal desires might be included.  Thus the commentary often works around the notion that the sexual urges have to be controlled, and all that masculine bullish energy has to be tamed and directed into more positive directions.  There is much talk of ‘the passions’ harking back to the days when the Christian church railed against lust.  But the conversion of sexual energy has some positive effects and is connected with the techniques of Peaking, and Sexual Stimulation, as such this is a very valid view.  The symbolism used then notches up to have a different meaning of course.  Grass is not grass!
  • Subconscious – In yet other commentaries the Bull is assumed to be the Subconscious, and because the Subconscious is traditionally symbolically feminine, the Bull gets changed to an Ox and suddenly we have the Ten Ox pictures.   The commentators are using the understanding that in order to achieve any form of positive worthwhile spiritual experience the masculine [Conscious] herder, has to go in search of the feminine [Subconscious] Ox and symbolically merge with her, thereby, as a merged unit getting access to the spiritual world.  This is a valid approach, but the original had a Bull and a Bull is masculine.  The answer that commentators appear to use is that many emotions – part of the Subconscious-  are very masculine – anger, hate, aggression.  So this is another view.
  • Conscious – The next set of views sees the Bull as equivalent to the symbolic Lion in the Tarot.  Thus the Bull represents the Ego and the Desires, the Objectives and driving Will of the masculine.  Buddhism especially concerns itself with trying to reduce desires and reducing opportunities, so it is indeed very valid to consider that the Bull is symbolically the Conscious self, except that it doesn’t quite fit the pictures as the herder is also masculine.  There is then further speculation that the herder represents the ‘Buddha nature’ – the Higher spirit – and in this sense the Higher spirit is searching for the Conscious self in order to tame it and eventually remove it.  This is somewhat in line with the poem by Francis Thompson where the Hound of Heaven [Higher spirit] pursues him until it catches him.  There is no doubt that in the early stages of the spiritual path this is exactly what the Higher spirit does.  If you are destined for a spiritual life, it does not let go and you are subjected to continual bombardment until you give in and do what you are told.  So the herder does not give up in his search for the Bull and is not happy until he has tamed him.  So another valid view.
  • Higher spirit/Buddha nature -   The final interpretation is that the Bull represents the Buddha nature – the Higher spirit, and that the whole allegory is based on the latter stages of the spiritual path not the early ones.  In effect it is then an allegory of the simple activity ‘know yourself’.  In this respect the choice of Bull is well chosen, as the idea that the Higher spirit is some sort of an angelic airy fairy goody goody is actually wrong.  The Higher spirit is the sum of everything we have been and are, or as the Buddhist might put it our entire karma, it is the masculine in us, the feminine, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ [though these latter are entirely subjective and have no real meaning spiritually].  The Higher spirit is also extraordinarily strong, there is a Will within the Higher spirit far stronger than the ego.  Those who merge with their Higher spirits or are annihilated as egos to become their Higher spirit are not weak willed, they have fire in their hearts.

So these are the alternatives.  I will leave it up to you to decide from the pictures what you think the Bull is.  I think it is important to realise that, there is not necessarily a right or a wrong answer, what you think, is an indicator of where you are on the spiritual path, which is why the pictures are so useful [and wise].  What is wrong is when commentators attempt to give a definitive interpretation.  For some people, those who have only ever been used to seeing the world in a totally materialistic way, the Bull would simply represent to them a realisation that there is a spirit world.  Thus the pictures are worth revisiting as more understanding is gained.  There is incidentally, an amazing similarity between the Bull pictures and the alchemical text of the Rosary of the Philosophers, but only if you have reached a specific point along the path.

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.