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.
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.