The set of poems and drawings known as the Oxherding series presents a parable about the conduct of Buddhist practice. In the most common version, attributed to a 12th-century Chinese Zen master, there are ten drawings, the first of which shows a young herder who has lost the ox he is supposed to be tending. In subsequent images he finds the ox’s tracks, sees the beast itself, tames it, and rides it home. In the seventh drawing the ox disappears: it “served a temporary purpose,” the accompanying poem says; it was a metaphor for something, not to be mistaken for the thing itself. The herder too disappears in the next drawing; the image simply shows a circle (Japanese, enso), a common symbol for enlightenment. The ninth drawing implies that the person who has achieved enlightenment does not then retreat from the world; called “Returning to the Roots, Going Back to the Source,” it usually shows a scene from nature. The final drawing shows a chubby fellow with a sack “entering the village with gift-giving hands.” Presented here are the painter Max Gimblett’s new versions of the traditional drawings, along with fresh translations of the classic poems. —Lewis Hyde
To read Lewis Hyde’s “One Word” and “Spare Sense” versions of these poems,
I: Searching for the Ox
Alone in the deep woods, despairing in the
jungle, searching in darkness!
Flood-swollen rivers, mountains beyond
mountains, the trail endless and
Bone-tired, heart-weary, the whole thing seems
No sound but the evening cicadas singing in a
grove of maple trees.
II: Seeing the Traces
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