Ox Symbolism in Buddhist Jewelry and Art

Ox Symbolism in Buddhist Jewelry and Art

Ox in Buddhist Jewelry and Art

Across Nepal, Tibet and much of East Asia, an ox is a common symbol found in Buddhist jewelry and art. What is the symbolism of the Ox in Buddhist jewelry and art? Much of the influence of the ox in Buddhism comes from the Zen ox herding pictures.


Zen Ox Herding Pictures

In Buddhism a contradiction seems to exist. Buddhism teaches that holding on to attachments such as desire produces suffering and hampers the realization of truth, and letting go of attachments leads to nirvana. Yet, desiring nirvana is an attachment in itself! How can one call him/herself a Buddhist, when holding on to a concept such as Buddhism is against the second noble truth, that attachments lead to suffering? However, how would one begin a path to nirvana without having such a conception of it and a desire to achieve it? The ten ox herding pictures depicts this path very well. In the series of pictures the man strives for finding, catching and taming ox (symbolizing the mind). Then, when this is completed, the man forgets all that he has attained and realizes that nirvana has been from the beginning, there was nothing to attain in the first place and so he returns to the origin. Therefore, the ten ox herding pictures depict both a gradual and a sudden cultivation of awakening. Zen Buddhism prescribes a disciplined lifestyle to cultivate a basis for catching and taming the ox (the mind), yet a sudden awakening happens when it is realized that nirvana was there from the beginning and needs no cultivation. The first half of the pictures symbolizes the cultivation aspect of nirvana, while the second half represents the sudden awakening.

The first five ox herding pictures depicts searching for and finally succeeding in catching and taming the ox. The first picture introduces the man who is caught up in worldly pursuits, haven lost sight of his “true nature”. Because of this he has “lost sight” of the ox, yet the first line of the commentary it is stated that the ox “has never really gone astray” foreshadowing to what he will gain from such a pursuit of the ox. “He carries on his search for this something which he yet cannot find” because his worldly attachments prevent him from seeing that the ox has never left him, he goes on in search of it. In the second picture his begins to find the tracks of the ox, pointing him to its location. He is brought to the tracks by the sutras, the scriptures which point him in the direction of nirvana. He begins to see these tracks everywhere, in the forest and by the water, on the grass and in the mountains, he begins to realize that all things are the same as a manifestation of the self. The man continues, and catches his first glimpse of the ox when he comes to the realization that there is no difference between perceived phenomenon and its true source, that everything is one. He begins to see the ox, his own mind, in every manifestation of that single true source, and so “there stands the ox, where could it hide”. In picture four he attempts to catch the ox, but with difficulty has it is wild and needs to be tamed. He attempts to grasp it, but with much difficulty has it must break from its old habits. He must use his whip to forcefully tame the ox and turn it from its desires, such as for sweet-scented grasses. The ox is all over the place, in highlands and in a misty ravine, it still has “unhealthy tendencies”. He manages to tame the ox when he understands what makes it so wild and full of unhealthy tendencies. He comes to understand how thoughts rise and fall, and the nature of such thoughts. He understands that delusions exist in our own minds, and that such delusions are the cause for the view of thoughts to be unreal. He tethers the ox so that it will not roam, or else it will stray “off to muddy haughts”. The first five pictures is a prescription for Zen monastic life. At a Zen monastery, each person struggles to find and catch hold of their own ox and keep it on a tight rope so that it may not wander. Every aspect of Zen monastic life aims at reducing thinking to achieve a proper understanding of true nature, to keep the ox from going wild. 

He has conquered the ox! and precedes to ride it home. He has no temptations, no desires, no notion of “gain” or “loss”. After taming the ox he has profound tranquility in his heart and desires nothing as “this ox requires not a blade of grass.” He has struggled so much to gain such control over the ox because he had a desire to find and catch the ox. He was so attached to gaining control of the ox, is he still disillusioned, even though he succeeded in taming it? He is, until he realized that there is no two-ness, no separation between him and the ox. He recognizes that the ox is his “primal-nature”. “A trap is no longer needed when a rabbit has been caught; a net becomes useless when a fish has been snared.” In the same way, such conceptions of the ox were needed to catch and tame it, but now that it has been done the conceptions of the ox are no longer necessary. The ox vanishes “and alone and serene sits the man... beneath the thatched roof his idle whip and idle rope are lying.” This leads to the man completely forgetting about the ox and the self. All delusive feelings vanish, and so too of any egotistic feelings of having achieved anything. He does not see himself as a Buddha or not as a Buddha, because his self has been forgotten. “Whip, rope, ox and man alike belong to emptiness” thus, our selves, minds, and method of controlling our minds such as choosing a monastic life are all essentially empty, they do not exist. The whole path has been a circle, has depicted in the eighth picture, because he arrives at his true nature where he started. The center of the circle is empty, depicting the inherent emptiness of reality, yet one must follow the circle and arrive back at the beginning to understand this, and at the same time to not understand this because there is nothing to understand, we are at the same time at the beginning and end of such a path and no-path.

In the end he understands all of this. “From the very beginning there has not been so much as a spec of dust to mar the intrinsic purity.” He had it all from the start! “his steps have been taken in vain”. He understands that there is no need to strive for anything, things are as they are “the waters are blue, the mountains are green.” He sits and watches things change, perceiving all things as impermanent, a waxing and waning of the original pure source. He enters the marketplace free from all attachments, even to earlier sages. He makes his own way. In the same way, Zen teachings and monastic life put you in the direction of finding, catching and taming the ox, your own mind. Yet when this is done, it is realized that the ox doesn’t exist separately from you, it has been since the beginning and in that way will always be. It is prescribed to be done, but is done in vain since such attachments are not real and a deviation from the original source. The path taken is one to be taken in vain, it is wrong. And in the same way, this paper and the ten pictures are wrong. In the end the man follows his own path and does not follow the earlier sages, thus these pictures should not be followed, and what I have written about them is a further deviation from the truth.