The Ten Bulls is a very old series of scenes. I first bumped into them during my university days, when I picked up the book “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”. At that time, I was just getting started thinking about zen. Why did I reach out for it? I suppose that I felt a lack of perspective in my life. I was searching for something. But I did not really know what it was.
The other short stories or fables in the book are nice, but the ten bulls stuck in my mind for over forty years. I have found myself remembering certain images or lines from the poems, especially in times of intense emotion.
This is what you find from Wikipedia
Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures (十牛; Japanese: jūgyū, Chinese: shíniú) 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,[web 1] as well as his or her subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom.
I did not really understand them at first. They were just beautiful. And I was skeptical that one could use them to gain transcendence and enlightenment. It was just too easy. But they were certainly about transcendence, and that itself was intensely interesting for me. I needed to transcend aspects of my life that I felt held me back.
BTW, you can access the entire Ten Bulls on the web. Here is one link — in fact, there are quite a few.
Over time, I began to realize that for a western mind, the ten bulls is less about achieving transcendence than about experiencing the path that life offers — if you are open to it. In other words, the goal is not to be always in the tenth, most enlightened state (an ego trip). It is instead, to appreciate each step as a story in itself. Doing that allows you, in a sense, to transcend the ten bulls. In this sense, the ten bulls is like any work of art.
You can build appreciation for the ten bulls journey rather easily. Read the stories and absorb them unto your memory. Then each day, sit and close your eyes. Either ask someone to read each poem to you —allowing a space of ten breaths between each. Or, better yet, speak out loud what you think about this particular adventure.
Each time you do this, you will find that it is easier to get beyond yourself. The self is enhanced therefore by feeling connected to a larger reality.
Give it a try!