The Ten Oxherding Pictures

Kaku-an’s manual of zen training 

by Vásken Kalayjian

There are many versions of this ancient Oriental allegory, some
dating as far back as the fourth century and perhaps earlier. This version, with 10 pictures, poems and introductory words attached to them, was composed in the 12th century as a training guide for Chinese Buddhist monks. It continues to be used today as a teaching tool in Zen monasteries in Japan.

Its purpose is to help the student to experience and relate to the unifying element within himself by meditating on each picture. This process is intended to help you find who you are, and exactly where you are in your inner development. If you look at the pictures with an open heart, you might reach the stage of development in your life where detachment and compassion—like eternity and time—become a living reality. It’s a quest to find the inner treasure and share it with others.

People look for the Way in many directions—moving around the world; changing careers, partners and spouses; through promotions, money, titles and myriad things. But the Way that is described here, “the Bull,” is not outside and not in another place. It is as near as oneself—very close, like a breath.

The tricky part is that you do not and
 cannot know what you are looking for until you find it!

The Ten Oxherding Pictures Kaku-an’s manual of zen training by Vasken Kalayjian


1. The Search for the Bull:

In this world, I struggle and push against the many forces acting against me as I search for the Bull. I exhaust my energies in some unprofitable pursuits, not having a clear aim.
I may find some things to distract me. I may even settle—on a golf course in Florida—and die. Some have hope and the possibility for developing a permanent soul. This journey is definitely not for everyone.

Comments: Why search if the Bull is never lost in the first place? Since I am separated from my true nature, I create this struggle. Because of my fears, greed, judgment and myriad reasons, I look for it far away. What a pity.


2. Discovering the Footprints:

I see traces of the Bull’s footprints. They aren’t totally wiped out, but I have to really look for them under all the distractions of life—school, job, car, sex, mortgage, children, dramas. When I look very carefully, I can see its traces as clearly as one can see its nose looking up to heaven.

Comments: I begin to walk on the path, like mounting a horse for the first time after a long period of neglect. I realize that what I call the “i” is no more than a multitude of desires and thoughts pulling me this way and that way. I have to develop a discriminating part—“an observer”—that can discern the true from the not-so-true. But these are all from the same fabric of the self—the permanent “I”—which I don’t possess. There are so many different selves, these little “i’s.” Which one of them do I listen to? The mind is a jungle, with so many thoughts pulling me this way and that. I haven’t yet reached the gate, but I see the path. There is a tendency to take a detour or fall off the horse.

3. Perceiving the Bull:

The path is so beautiful, full of flowers and the warmth of the sun shining on my back. I see a part of the Bull clearly, with its horns and big head.

Comments: I have a little taste of this one-ness. Like salt and water, all my senses are unified. I can see the interconnectedness of all things in nature.

4. Catching the Bull:

The Bull is so powerful that it takes all of my force to grab him. But I cannot, as he takes off in the tall grass looking for something else. My infatuation bubble with catching him today quickly bursts. The Bull has been on its own for so long that it wants to continue on its own, searching for sweeter grass.

Comments: I wish to stay on the path and on the horse; I need discipline to maintain the path. Recognizing my aim, I have to use skillful means to stay the course. I can employ reward and punishment to stay with my aim. I see how quickly my mind is distracted and I am pulled every which way.


5. Taming the Bull:

Like using the “whip and rope” on a horse, I need a strong sense of will power and discipline to keep the Bull on the path. Otherwise it can lose itself down an alley. It is a daily practice—one minute at a time—to observe, to make room for the big “I” to be a unifying force so that I am not pulled by the different and contradictory “i’s.”

Comments: Each thought has to be guarded against. Thoughts are like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. The task is to stay centered observing these thoughts and not allowing any one of them to distract me.


6. Riding the Bull Home:

The struggle is over as I find a center, a permanent “I” that unifies the whole. I continue to move forward undistracted by the forces that want to pull me back.

Comments: Slowly I return home, sitting on the Bull. The notes from my flute fill the night. The harmony has an endless rhythm and whoever hears it is affected by it. The ripple effect of my thoughts and actions is very vivid.


7. The Bull Transcended:

I ride the Bull home. I am contemplative and restful as the Bull rests too. I see the dawn of a new day and I do not need the rope and the whip to control the Bull. I live with joy in my simple life.

Comments: I experience oneness as dualistic thoughts are transcended. The Bull is a temporary subject of mind and the path is now clear ahead. I am actively engaged in the search for consciousness and in developing an attention that can know its Source.


8. Both Bull and Self Transcended:

Everything is transcended into one-ness, No-Thing, no Bull, no rope, no whip, no person. Here we can see the footprints of the ancestors that have walked this path before us.

Comments: The mind is clear of limitations, as there is nothing to seek. I seek no enlightenment and I neither remain where no enlightenment exists.

9. Reaching the Source:

After this long journey I return to the Source, where everything is in full bloom.

Comments: When not attached to form there is nothing to reform. Truth is clear as myriad forms rise and fall.

10. In the World:

I am back in the marketplace where I mingle with the people in the world. Life is magical and blissful. I live my life fully and everything becomes alive.

Comments: In the marketplace everyone I come in contact with becomes enlightened.


First Published in GK Source 2005

The Ten Oxherding Pictures Kaku-an’s manual of zen training by Vasken Kalayjian


GK Brand was founded on a vision to be a top-tier branding firm that prides itself on building positive and inspiring relationships with its customers, its community, and its employees, and this remains the driving force behind our success. With three decades of experience in creating, managing and revitalizing brands for leading organizations around the world, we are proud to have partnered with some of the biggest and best brands in the marketplace. Our executives, partners and advisory board are drawn from some of the world’s largest corporations and most prestigious agencies. CONTACT US. Let’s talk


Contact Us

If you're ready to find out what makes us the world's leading brand consultancy for innovative and bespoke advertising, branding and design projects, please get in touch today. Got a branding challenge for us? Let's talk.

  • Boston
    Brand Real @Learning Learning Architects LLC.
    993 Massachusetts Avenue
    Suite 215
    Arlington, MA 02476-4519 USA

    New York
    Brand Real @Kaleidoscope New York
    251 W 39th Street
    4th Floor
    New York, NY 10018 USA

    Brand Real @Learning Learning Architects Armenia
    28 Yeznik Koghbatsi Street
    11th Floor, Suite #20
    Yerevan, 0010 Republic of Armenia
  • International Call
    WhatsApp: +1.917.952.0278