Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
Verses Composed by KAKUAN Zenji

Commentary by Harvey Daiho Hilbert-roshi, Ph.D.



Seeking the ox incessantly you brush aside thick grasses in pursuit; The waters are wide, the mountains far, and the path leads on without end. Sapped of strength, exhausted in spirits, knowing no longer where to search,You only hear the sound of the evening cicadas chirping in the maple trees.

May 29th, 1966. The Central Highlands of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. It is night. Very dark. The jungle is quite wet. I have just been in a fire fight with a whole lot of North Vietnamese solders. They have us surrounded.
I feel my head. There is a hole in it. I am terrified. Gunfire and grenades build this fear.
I hear the screaming of the dead and dying. I am tired, but cannot go to sleep. I fear I might not wake up. I look to the sky, what I can see of it through the dark canopy of trees. It is a black hole in the universe. I ask God to save me.
No answer.
In the morning the few of us who survived being overrun are medevac’d out. I leave Vietnam unable to use the left side of my body. I am 19 and a high school drop out with a GED.
What’s do I do?


At the waters edge, under the trees – hoofmarks are numerous. Balmy grasses grow abundantly – can you see them or not? Even if you go deeper and deeper into the mountains, How could his nostrils, well compassing the heavens, hide him at all?


So, at 19 on the streets of Miami with a “Retirement” certificate from the US Army and a body that only half works, I set out to discover life. Here’s the thing: trauma disrupts cognitive and emotional processes. Those of us who have experienced such things, ‘know the sutras,’ but are suddenly on the outside looking in. There is a crack in that cosmic egg that has nurtured us and kept us asleep for so long and now the brilliant light of day is streaming down and we squeeze our eyes, not knowing which way to turn.
I attend peace rallies. I attend college. I sleep with women. I drink. I ride a motorcycle. I read books. I learn to play chess at a chess club. I find jobs and lose jobs. The tracks are everywhere. I have found myself in a world without God. A world rushing faster and faster and I, on the outside looking in, ask myself, “Do I really want to go there?”


If you attain by way of sounds, you will encounter the source of all seeing. The six sense organs are each no different from this;
In all actions, the head is revealed. It is like the salty taste of the water, the binder in the paint. Raise your eyebrows, and this is nothing other than THAT itself.

The bush warbler sings on the branch.
The sun is warm, the breeze gentle,
And the willows on the riverbank are green.
There is no place you can escape from him.
That majestic head and horns could never be painted in a picture.

In all of the women, books, and chess, there was still something missing yet demanding to be found. I often found myself sitting on one of the Florida keys waiting for the sun to come up. Fascinated with morning light, angry, hurt, wanting to blame God, men, and country.
Such wounds as the wounds of war are forever open.
The seafood time was rolling in and out. Jobs came and went. So did the wives. Is this all there is?

No. A shadow.

I met a man named Bernie Schmidt. He was a loud man. He was a strong man. He taught me a few things. He taught me about shouting and learning and studying and not taking second best. He taught me that having compassion did not mean making excuses. He taught me to love without so much concern for white bread notions of normal. He made “joyful noises unto the lord!”. But was not a religious man. He offered me a copy of “Walden” and a copy of “The Way of Zen.”
Not too long ago my friend of nearly forty years died.
The shadow stirs.
Those of us who have experienced such things ‘know the sutras’ but are suddenly on their outside looking in. There is a crack in that cosmic egg that has nurtured us, but kept us asleep for so long and now the brilliant light of day is streaming down and we squeeze our eyes, not knowing which way to turn.

I attend peace rallies. I attend college. I sleep with women. I drink. I ride a motorcycle. I read books. I learn to play chess at a chess club. I find jobs and lose jobs. The tracks are everywhere. I have found myself in a world without God. A world rushing faster and faster and I am on the outside looking in. Do I really want to go there?


For a long time he has been living in obscurity in the countryside;
Today you have met him. Because he enjoys his former situation so much, it is difficult to drive him out.
He cannot stop loving the fragrant grasses;
His stubborn will is still strong and a wild spirit remains.
If you wish to make him pure and obedient, 
You must apply the whip.


You have exhausted all your faculties to take hold of him.
Because his spirit is strong and his strength abundant,
It is difficult to rid him of his habits.
Sometimes he goes to the top of the high plain.
Other times he resides in clouds and smoke.

Orgasm is like that, so is riding a motorcycle at 90 mph without the headlights at midnight. We sit in silence and in a moment everything is nothing. Our eyes flicker. Pulses are just pulses. Impulse and impatience are the great teachers subverting themselves.
In the end, we must grab them by their short hairs and speak.


Once thoughts rise up even slightly, they are followed by other
thoughts. Through enlightenment, they become true; in delusion, they become false. It is not due to our surroundings that they are there;
they are only produced by our mind. We must pull the Ox firmly by his tether and not allow any doubts to

Whipping does not depart from the body at any moment.
Lest he follow his own whim, entering the dust and dirt.
If you devotedly tame him, he will be pure and gentle.
Without bridle and chains, he will follow you of his own accord.

I learn unevenly: trying to learn to walk again, I often stumble. Learning to be a therapist, I sometimes fail to listen. Learning to be a human being once again and not a hunter of human beings, I sometimes see myself kill. Images are the worst: coffee spoons, cigarettes, motorcycles, medals, beads, long hair, beard, no beard, shaved head; badges of this and that. Like mud they stick to my boots and cause me to grunt while walking. I just want to fly. Zazen releases the weight of the badges. Then: Nice guy. Feminist. Buddha. Vietnam Vet. Biker. Artist. Illusions not even as real as spooks in the night sky.
Faith in our practice is foundational. Coming to the mountain Zendo, meeting my Master, I sat each day. His life is nothing to write home about. Most Masters live this way. Ordinary living that is all. So I don’t write home.

It is important to recognize the chimeric quality of thoughts and feelings. As one old friend used to say, “a bag of shells, Harvey, a bag of shells.” When we see our thoughts as important or profound or valuable we are lost. When we see them coming and celebrate them we are lost. Only when they are seen for their true nature, the nature of wind across the desert, or as leaves flowing down a stream, are they in their proper context. So here it is: just sit. Sit in the morning. Sit in the evening. And in between, steer yourself directly.



The battle is already over, gain and loss are also empty.
He sings a woodcutter’s rustic song and whistles a child’s tune.
Straddled on the Ox’s back, he gazes at the clouds.
Though you call him he will not return; though you try to catch and hold him, he will not stay.

You mount the ox and want to make your way slowly home.
A barbarian plays the flute in the red glow of sunset.
Each measure, each tune is filled with ineffable tones.
Among true intimates, what need is there for words?

Mind comes and goes like the clouds in the sky, as do all things, when we attain oneness with them all, in whatever form at the time, we are on the Ox. We are pure joy. We have attained the realm of emptiness and see ourselves as having arrived. All things are meaningless. All things are fleeting. Since we cannot keep anything, there is no need to value anything. Then ‘among true intimates,’ what need is there for words?

The sea talks to itself in deep silence.

Still, we have not attained the deep abiding. We see bliss as something separate from pain. When the sea is the sea that is not all there is: waves are there also.

A magician flips the coin and in the sound of the spin we are two.
We see good as something different from evil: Vietnam. Killing. Wal-Mart. Shopping. Eating. Shitting. Hugging. Loving. Not different, yet different. We do not understand the coin.

A deep bow.


In the dharma there is no duality; the Ox is the foundation.
It may be compared to the rabbit and the snare;
it is expressed in the difference between fish and weir.
Like gold coming from ore, like the moon emerging from behind the

The Single Way of cold light has been shining
ever since time beyond kalpas.

You have mounted the ox
And already reached your home in the mountains.
The ox is gone and the person has nothing more to do.
Though the morning sun has already risen three bamboo lengths,
He dreams on.
The whip and the halter, no longer of use, are hung up in the stall.


Opening my eyes this morning, I thought of you. Our dogs, Suki and Binky, waited patiently: the coffee was made, bows made, the incense was lit. Nothing here is apart from one another. You, I, dogs, coffee, incense, and all of the actions are the same without any distinction. Distinction is an sickness of mind.

These things were always there and will always be here. And more, there really is no here or there, then and now. We call this our original nature. Our original nature is our continuous nature, our perpetual nature. Once understood, once attained, we realize it’s true nature.

So, then, of what use language? So, then, what use zafus, robes, dog leashes, coffee?

May All Beings Be Free From Suffering.


Ordinary feelings have fallen away, thoughts of holiness are all empty.
We should not linger where there is Buddha; we should pass quickly by
where there is no Buddha. If we do not stick to either, it will be difficult for a thousand eyes to perceive us.
For myriad birds to carry flowers is a shame all around.

Whip, tether, person and ox – all are empty.
The blue sky spreads out far and wide, it cannot be communicated.
On a red-hot oven, how can there be any place for snow?
Having come this far, you understand the intention of the patriarchs.

We chant the Wisdom Heart Sutra, all bowing with the sound of the bell. We adjust the flowing robes and sit facing the wall. We rise and walk, feeling each footfall, each stiff muscle relax. We sit again. We sip our tea so graciously served. We listen to the Dharma, incomparably profound and minutely subtle. When we do this awake, there is no room for even a single thought, not a single feeling. The oven is, indeed, hot.

Practicing like this there is no practice and no practitioner. There is simple awareness in motion. The tools are just tools and are no longer necessary. But because we are buddhas we continue: through time and space there we are; one, all, none.

Just so, we get up in the morning and great the day. We say hello to the kitty, the dogs, the coffee pot. We sit zazen, we wash our faces, clean our teeth. We go to work, driving, walking, running, sitting, eating, talking. Done fully and completely, there is no room for wobbles.

As the present moment yields from all causes and conditions before, lizards now speak and slime walks. The combustion of creation is settled in form. And in process. And in form. And in process. And in form. In this place, beginning and end have no meaning.


It is originally pure and clean without a speck of dust clinging.
He observes the flourishing and dying of form
while remaining in the silence of no-action.
This is not the same as illusion; what need is there for striving or
planning? The water is blue and the mountains green;
he sits and watches phenomena take form and decay.

Having come back to the origin and returned to the source,
You see that you have expended efforts in vain.
What could be superior to becoming blind and deaf
In this very moment?
Inside the hermitage,
You do not see what is in front of the hermitage.
The water flows of itself and the flowers are naturally red.

The bodhisattvas whisper in our ear. We see poverty. We see war. We see cruelty and illness, sickness and death. We see our neighbors stealing, lying, cheating, and swindling. We see the world manipulating as if it is OK because we are, after all, just putting a positive “spin” on things. We see this all as one side of the human coin. And the bodhisattvas whisper.

We are here to attain clear mind then step out into the universe to assist all beings. We are here to help. To save. To nurture. To witness. To do what is there to be done.

There should be no distinctions here: just wash the dishes, write your congressman, talk to your neighbor. No better or worse, higher or lower, just the simple and clear expression of buddha in action. Saving a fly from death is the same as saving a man from execution. It is our true nature to witness.

So here it is: our practice is to destroy the stored assumptions we carry around on our backs, these multiply colored filters through which we distort our perception and thus, skew our thoughts, feelings and behavior. Our practice is to develop clear mind. To perceive without history and distinction, without distorted thought and feeling, then to seamlessly behave according to what is there in front of us to do.
Our time on the cushion is time with the ultimate therapist who cures us and sends us on our way.


He closes the thatched gate to his hermitage
so that even the thousand sages do not know of him.
He buries the light of his own knowing
and goes against the tracks left by former sages.
Carrying a gourd, he enters the marketplace; holding his staff, he
returns home, Bestowing Buddhahood on barkeeps and fishmongers.


Shoeless and bare-chested he enters the marketplace;
He is daubed with earth and ashes, and a smile fills his face.
Making no use of the secrets of gods and wizards,
He causes withered trees to bloom.

When we are buddhas there is no need for the signs and symbols, the shoes and the robes of the Buddha. There is no need for sticks and whisks, special words, or bells and incense. Transformative process is like this.

Our presence is enough. The way we open a door. The way we smile. The way we invite. The way we say no. Each speaks as silence is to thunder.

When we are buddhas there is no Zen apart from us. Our way is Zen, regardless of how Zen came and went in the past. So we set out on our own way, free of the trappings of our Teacher, free of the trappings of the Buddha himself.

In so doing, what was once a stiff, old teaching or a vericose-veined Temple, is now living and vibrant. This is dialectic. This is life.
We still wear our robes. We still shave our heads. We still light our incense and make bows. There is a deep and profound difference between habits and manifestations. Just as there is a difference between a candle without a flame and a candle burning bright.
In this so-called “Stage” we are understood as beings in full expression of Buddha-nature. Our each action is a seamless expression of Buddha-dharma. Our bodies are the body of buddha. The notion of these stages happening as sequential events is very misleading. While it is true that in order for seeds to sprout, the ground of our being must first be tilled by both life and death and a true practice, there is no moment within which buddha is not present within each of us. So in each moment an eye may open and light shine forth. Our continuous practice is to assist us, so to speak, in keeping our eye open regardless of the time of day.

With love and a deep bow.