The 10 Bulls

The 10 Bulls

Longhorn Bull by Larry Smith
Longhorn Bull by Larry Smith

There is a famous series of 10 panels (below) portraying the stages of enlightenment from a Zen Buddhist perspective. They are known as the 10 Bulls or Oxen. I’ve touched on these before but it’s come up a few times recently so I thought it worth doing an article on the topic.

I am not a Buddhist scholar nor practitioner but have studied the basics. The approach has never appealed because of the style of experience here. Self has been conscious since I was 20 so I don’t relate to a no-self or emptiness approach. I also see modern Buddhism as doing it the hard way. In recent years, thousands of Buddhist monks have been learning effortless meditation, restoring a Yogic path.

Over the years, I’ve seen several interpretations of the panels. Only one interpretation holds up to the entire set – that it portrays the recognized steps of a specific practice to established Self Realization. Like other parts of Buddhism, it is about steps of success in that practice.

Broadly, modern Buddhism only recognizes a single awakening. That has strongly influenced modern neo-Advaita even though Advaita itself recognizes stages. There’s a big gap between awakening and the exalted descriptions of a living Buddha or bodhisattva. Buddha himself spoke to the higher stages, but that understanding has been lost.

It’s also worth noting the panels are from another culture and time.

10 BullsThe Panels
In essence the bull/ox is the ego. The first few panels have the self (jiva) seeking its hidden nature within. Once the ego is found, there is an effort to catch and tame the bull, then ride it home.

In panels 7 and 8, the bull is transcended, then the self is transcended into a no-self state or emptiness – classic Buddhist Self-Realization.

In panel 9, the source is discovered, what I would call consciousness or the Self. Everything arises from the self-interacting dynamics of consciousness.

And finally, in the 10th panel, the practitioner returns to the world with their awakening. We’re now past the time when we need to leave the world for long periods to become enlightened. But that was the case in prior centuries.

Some interpret panel 8 as transcending Atman into Brahman but this doesn’t fit into the flow of the other panels. Emptiness is a quality of space which arises in consciousness, not Brahman. Unity is missing and Zen has no language for Brahman. Adyashanti has been referring to a second post-Unity no-Self stage, for example.

I’m open to the possibility of another interpretation of the panels. But the above is what makes the most sense here.

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  1. Jose

    Hi David,
    Can you eleborate on why we are now past the time when someone doesn’t need to spend time in hermitage to fully awaken?
    Also – why do you think modern Buddhism rejects the Self as everything and stays at “nothingness” is this due to a missenterpretation of the Buddha’s teachings?
    If I remember correctly, Shankara did expand on the Self as a source of consciousness

    1. Hi Jose
      We’ve risen out of a dark age where most had to withdraw from the world to make significant progress. This is why many of the awake used to be monks from remote places.
      When I was young, this was still largely the case. Most enlightened teachers were coming out of years in cloistered spots. People would go on long retreats and meditate as much as they could.
      By the turn of the century, you started to see the rise of western spiritual teachers who has spent extended periods with the above but not nearly as long. Retreats had shifted to “rounds” of asana, pranayama and mediation in progressively smaller number.
      And then about a decade ago, people with no retreat history started to wake up. And retreats dropped to just 3 rounds. Now 3 day retreats are more powerful than 6 months used to be.
      I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t spend time retreating. It can be valuable to take a break and spend time with the awake. I do it regularly. There can also be a time in life when it’s recommended. But this doesn’t mean 3 years. A few days can be very effective. To make significant progress you no longer have to withdraw from the world – in fact being in the world can be a great stabilizer.
      I’d also note I recommend a technique that does withdraw you from the world in short increments – an effortless meditation. 🙂
      Every great spiritual lineage starts with an awakened teacher who knows how to awaken students. But after 3-400 years, the means becomes lost. The teaching degrades into philosophy then dogma. This has been true of Buddha, of Jesus, and the Vedic tradition I typically reference.
      In the latter case, the core teachings were drawn back into remote places and protected. A small part of that has been revived.
      From what i understand, Buddha came back to basics, rejecting all the ritual and baggage that had collected around Indian philosophies. That included the dogma around Atman and Brahman. But now there is anti-Self dogma.
      We can also note that in a darker age, it would be more likely to experience the space of consciousness as an emptiness rather than a fullness as the latter requires some refinement. He was teaching to the times.
      The bulls above come from the Zen branch of Buddhism. Modern Buddhism has added considerable complexity back onto Buddha’s teaching, partly because practitioners experienced those things that had been dropped.
      It’s not so much that Self is the source of consciousness but that the dynamics of self-aware consciousness are recognized as I or the Self in Self Realization.
      Shankara also revived the monastic tradition as it was needed as above, and as a way to protect the core teachings in cloistered maths. Similarly, Vyasa wrote the core Vedas down to save them.

  2. Hi Dji,

    As usual a beautiful, insightful post.

    There is such a wide range of Buddhist practice with so many flavors and offshoots it is challenging to get to the essence in terms of experience.

    I have a dear friend, a Zen Priest, who is clearly awake, who runs a beautiful retreat center outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. We have discussed the various stages as we in our Vedic world relate to them and the Buddhist equivalents from his experience and that of his teachers.

    Initial Awakening or Cosmic consciousness sounds the same and rings true, although the naming is fluid.

    Unity is referred to as the “Intimacy of Ten Thousand things” in Buddhist literature and the description, as far as using words goes, correlates with the experience here.
    It is discussed as the unfolding of the first awakening and becoming one with all things etc.

    He also refers to his teacher as being beyond Consciousness or what we would refer to as Brahmin, and his understanding, and experience of that, definitely mirrors ours.

    Always in Deepest Gratitude Senor D

    1. Hey S-ness
      Yes, and my experience with most of it is limited. Thanks for sharing.
      I’ve found many aspects described in the Vedas are also present in various branches of Buddhism even down to the same gods. This might be considered cultural pollution but if you consider these aspects are universal expressions, they’d show up with different names in different traditions.
      In many ways, they are all just different roads home. I have prior life history with the Vedic linage so am inclined that way. I also have a strong mind so prefer the more defined process. But the best path is the one we resonate with the most. And all perspectives can enhance our own.
      Nonetheless, I do recommend an effortless meditation whatever your path as it brings you home reliably.

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