On the Ten Bulls: Lose Yourself to Find Yourself

(h/t  Freepik )

(h/t Freepik)

Life is wild. Messy. And short. You're a little lost. Aimless. Roughed up. Frightened. So you meditate.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

"Ten Bulls" is a classic series of poems that illustrates the Buddhist's progress towards the purification of the Self into enlightenment, and the subsequent return to society to share in this wisdom. In comparative mythology, this is known as the monomyth or the hero's journey — as introduced by American mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Building on the tradition of Taoist bull parables, Buddhist master Kuòān Shīyuǎn (Kakuan Shien) took what was already present and made it deeper and wider. A pure and potent version of what is now known as Zen.

First appearing in China in the 12th century, these poems, along with Taoism, greatly influenced Chan Buddhism. As Chan Buddhism spread to Japan, it developed into the practice known as Zen Buddhism.

Into Zen

In contemporary culture, "zen" has become a colloquialism. An adjective interchangeable with "mellow"; "zen" is the prevailing slang, occupying the space "chill" once held. But the colloquialism is not congruent with Zen Buddhism. Rather than a practice, "zen" describes a state of being or a personality trait that requires no practice.

However, there is the rare occasion someone might use "zen" to express discipline, austere minimalism, and mastery. This description complements the practice. After all, from Zen came Eastern martial arts. (Perhaps one without the other is incomplete.)

Unlike its predecessors, Zen de-emphasizes sutras and doctrines, and favors adherent practice of meditation, along with direct study under a master. The willingness to drop ego and be the student, shoshin, is the hallmark of Zen practice. It requires stringent self-control, commitment, and deep-empathy.

If it takes 12-steps to transform your life, Zen only needs ten steps to a full life.

Zen Meditation

The practice of Zen meditation is neither a means to unlocking superhuman abilities nor a shortcut to happiness and productivity. It is a way to uncover one's natural wisdom. The difference between knowledge and wisdom is compassion. The compassionate mind is considered our true Nature. We pursue meditation for self-centeredness, but if done correctly, what we improve is our other-centeredness.

"Ten Bulls," accompanied by Zen paintings, became the prescriptive guide to Zen meditation. Pay particular attention to the cyclical nature of the allegory (the influence of Taoism). The ending of the final stage introduces the first stage. In this context, if you do not let go of the Self, you will never complete the cycle. No better than before, stuck to repeating the same patterns of negativity.

Also, do not focus merely on the original intent of the poem. Use your representational process to interpret how this can nurture a better quality of life.

Ten Bulls

Verses by Kuòān Shīyuǎn (Kakuan Shien, 12th century). Translation by Senzaki Nyogen and Paul Reps in Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Paintings attributed to Tenshō Shūbun (1414 – 1463).

(And below them, you will find my own verses of reflection.)

1. In Search of the Bull

In Search of the Bull
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Life is wild. Messy. And short. You're a little lost. Aimless. Roughed up. Frightened. So you meditate. To find answers. To find peace.

2. Discovery of the Footprints

Discovery of the Footprints
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains, they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

When you first meditate, you may not understand it. Your original intent may have been misguided. But there's something there. There's something to it.

3. Perceiving the Bull

Perceiving the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Aha! Practice and you will find. And what you will find, you will think is the whole. You teach when you should learn. The little you know, you will believe is all there is to know. The grand delusion. There is no eureka moment.

4. Catching the Bull

Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The real work begins. No flick of the switch. Here you struggle. But against yourself. Your want for peace while holding onto desires that give you no peace. You must confront the disorganized mess that is your current mind. Wanting to learn, yet allergic to what you learn. You are disconnected; not quite ready for unity.

5. Taming the Bull

Taming the Bull
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Zen is Self-control. Discipline. Mastery over the Self. You drop old schemas. And change old patterns. Automatic becomes conscious. Though you made progress, you must still practice. You are finding compassion. And compassion leads to wisdom.

6. Riding the Bull Home

Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Practice leads to flow. The struggle subsides. Embrace what comes. Release what goes. Accept all possibilities and potentials. Observe without judgment.

7. The Bull Transcended

The Bull Transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

When you think of why you should meditate, you lose the purpose of meditation. Utility. Value-propositions. Judgments. Without compassion. Lacking wisdom. Then there can be no respite. No peace. You must seek again.

When you forget why you started, you are without agenda. You will find peace. When you let go, is when you gain.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

Both Bull and Self Transcended
Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

All that you know is subjective. Truth is a perspective. Truth is whatever gives you comfort. You must lose yourself to find yourself. You must enter the void. No individualism. No identity. Nothing tangible. No comfort or satisfaction. Only endless transformation. No dark or light. Only enlightenment.

9. Reaching the Source

Reaching the Source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on, and the flowers are red.

Clarity. The world has not changed. But you have changed. Ordinary life sparkles with new awareness. Awareness of the life that has always been. To gain perspective, you must know the void. To appreciate a dust flake, you must know Nothingness. This has always been the Way. You had to close your eyes to yourself to see clear what was always beyond yourself.

10. Return to Society

Return to Society
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

From the inward journey, you return to the world. Spirituality is everywhere. Unbound. Every day is practice. Solitude yields gratitude. Wisdom is meant to serve others. Not the Self. Time to share your years of practice.


Empty yourself. In the void, you cannot say where you end, and the Other begins. Connected by Emptiness. Coming from Nothingness. No gaps. No separation. No solidity. No boundaries. Differences are only illusions. We are interconnected.

You started because you were lost. But only lost in relative comparison to your expectations. How do I attain my desires? So you meditate. But only in truly losing your way, your desires, do you find the Way. Your true self. The No-Self.

You see the essential. When you see beyond yourself, you have the objectivity to see things as they are. We are not solid. Like bodies of water, we merge when we come together. So we must tend to one another. Compassion, our only truth.

To continue this cycle, you must teach so that others might grow. Just as you were taught. This has always been the Way. The Way has always been one of compassion. You could have been nothing. Stayed nothing. The start of our existence was the first act of compassion. To continue to exist is continued compassion. This is the Way, and the Way is compassion.

Other Thoughts

From Socrates to Plato, the Greeks said:

Know thyself.

To compare this to Zen, Dōgen Zenji (1200 – 1253) writes:

The way of Buddha
is to know yourself,
To know yourself
is to forget yourself,
To forget yourself
is to be enlightened by all things.

"Eureka" is ancient Greek for spontaneous understanding. Zen has no eureka. There is only wisdom gained through continuous toil and practice. The bedroom light turns on with a snap. This makes for nice imagery, but enlightenment is far more involved.

If you can lose yourself, you will find relief. Lose your Self and you find your Nature. To make room for compassion, empty your vessel of ego.

The Self is untrustworthy. It is a shell. Without depth. There will be a realization of the Self. To gain enlightenment, you must let go of it. The Self is like an old shoe; you cannot throw it away without first finding it. But finding it is not the purpose; losing it is.

This is where many get stuck. We love ourselves, love to find ourselves, love hearing about ourselves, and love understanding ourselves. We love our identities and our personal narratives. We are our favorite subject to study. Even if we hate ourselves, we'll fixate on ourselves. So we seek it and define it and seek it some more. Instead of letting go, we use meditation to grow our sense of Self. To grow ego, desire, and attachment. But our ego tricks us; we look Zen (external practice), rather than living Zen (internal development).

There is comfort in knowing ourselves. We want to solidify. The notion of change causes us distress. So we run through the motions, reinforcing ourselves, while avoiding Emptiness. Rigid and unyielding. Trapped in stasis.

No answers. No peace. Circling the surface. Repeating the same mistakes. Alone. Disconnected. Separated from the Way. Without benefit of wisdom.

Zen meditation takes us on a journey from the Self, Emptiness, to Selflessness. It is only Zen when it benefits others. When daily life becomes the personal expression of your Zen.

In persisting with your practice (internal and external), there will come bliss. A bliss you will want to share. Thus, you return to the world; this time, in the bliss of unity.

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