'Search' stories help us find the way

Zen and art of searching

Zen has a wonderful, 900-year-old pictorial story, which, in modern terminology, would be called "no bull."

It’s actually called the Oxherding Pictures, and since Zen essentially teaches without words, it’s appropriate to depict man’s search for himself in illustrations.

The ox is a metaphor for the mind, which refuses to conform to any discipline and the oxherd is the Zen practitioner trying to find his true self.

The mind was compared with a wild ox because it had to be captured, tethered and broken, a long, slow process. Following the example, the Zen student is encouraged to directly experience his own mind through meditation, subdue anxieties and desires, experience oneness with all, and find peace.

But it isn’t just in Zen, all literature is rife with search stories, variations of the oxherding story: Prometheus, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Knights of the Round Table or a native American on a vision quest; it’s about anyone who confronts adversity, is changed in the process and then brings back something to his community. Fairy tales are a variation of the search motif.

“The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth,” mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand.”

The process is always the same: departure, initiation and return.

All the stories are really the story of all of us, on a personal search for fire, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the bull. Once we start on the path of self-discovery, there’s no going back. We might never discover who we are, but we’ll never be content with who we were.

“The journey begins as an exhausting search for an elusive quarry,” Timothy Freke writes in Zen Wisdom. “The seeker is pictured in search of himself, but all he can find is rustling leaves and singing cicadas and he does not yet realize that these are the very clues he seeks. During this stage, the student is often confused and discouraged. He doesn’t really know what it is he is looking for.”

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the bull only appears lost because the oxherd thinks he is alone, separate from others, from the world, which both religion and science argue is an illusion.

So the oxherd, the searcher — us — seeks, reaching crossroads, uncertain which one to take, going one way, doubling back, taking another until he discovers a teaching, a method that works and he sees the bull’s footprints everywhere. He sees through the illusion and realizes everything is a reflection of himself.

“Better keep yourself clean and bright,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “You are the window through which you must see the world.”

While the seeker accepts that point intellectually, he still has trouble living it; he has found the path, but has not yet passed through what Zen calls the “gateless gate.”

The oxherd captures the bull, but it refuses to be tamed, just like our restless, monkey mind. After a lifetime thinking what it likes, it doesn’t want to submit — just as we find excuses not to meditate, go on a diet, exercise or spend more time with our kids, our spouse or our parents.

The student must train his mind so it doesn’t conjure fantasies or watch movies in his head and begins Zen training until the mind is tamed and he accepts that it is not other people who cause his anger and angst, but himself.

With practice, vigilance and discipline, the mind is calmed and the oxherd is no longer concerned with success or failure, or what the world thinks or demands.

“He realizes that the bull has only been a temporary subject of his quest,” Freke writes. “His search has led to the realization that the separate self, that he previously took himself to be, is not his true self. The seeker knows his Buddha-nature — his deeper identity.”

With that comes the realization all is one, that everyone and everything is but a reflection of a deeper reality, the Absolute.

“Although the vision that the seeker has been seeking has finally been attained, there is no self to glory in this achievement. Mind, clear of all limitations. Confusion is replaced by serenity. Ideas of holiness are irrelevant,” writes Freke.

That brings joy, which encompasses sadness and happiness, but is greater than both. With joy comes acceptance of the self and the world.

The search is often portrayed as something outside ourselves, a heroic quest that summons physical courage and mental strength, but essentially is a journey inward. The searcher goes “into depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world,” writes Campbell.

“The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the “king’s son” who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power.

“From this point of view, the hero is symbolical of the divine creative and redemptive image, which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.”

The final word goes to Zen: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Even the enlightened have to pay the hydro and cell phone bills.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories