We often recognise in daily life that something goes wrong with us. Sometimes our body sends signals that something is wrong, especially when a part of the body feels pain or when an organ doesn’t function well. Also, our emotions may be sources of unease or imbalance sometimes, when we often feel gloomy, lose temper too easily or when too enthusiastic happiness or joy makes us do things that we later regret or regard as stupid. Finally, the most difficult to detect among these three, our thoughts disturb us, cause insomnia, circle around the same things again and again, make us doubt, worry, complain, etc. I guess nobody (except Buddha and some Bodhisattvas) can say that everything in life goes well. When we recognise, understand and accept this fact, we are a big step further!
Imagine you are driving a car at high speed and something is wrong with it. You hear a strange noise or it trembles suddenly. It would be very dangerous and also impossible to find out the reason for the malfunction while driving high speed. Instead it would be reasonable to stop the car, get out of it, walk around it and find the problem (maybe a loose wheel, or something like that). Meditation is the same procedure for the malfunctioning of ourselves. When we recognise something goes wrong with our body, emotions or thoughts, it would be very difficult, almost impossible, to examine, identify or even heal the problem while driving high speed, that means in daily life when we use body, emotions and thoughts as usual. Meditation means to stop, hold on, get out of oneself and observe from outside. That’s what mindfulness is good for. Get out of ourselves and into our mind. Feel and recognise our body signals, not only pain, but also breathing speed, muscle tensions, heartbeat, and so on. Detect emotions and their sources, how they take control of us. With some training we can notice how the pure primary emotions (positive, negative or neutral feelings) are turned into secondary emotions (anger, hate, sadness, happiness, joy, boredom, etc.) by processing those original perceptions with our experiences and habits. We can also observe our thoughts from the outside, which is most difficult, because people tend to think a lot even during a meditation, and can’t imagine how to capture thoughts without thinking about them. In order to explain this matter I found another picture from real life. Imagine you give a party at your home. At 8PM the first guests arrive, you open the door and let them in. With everyone you start a conversation, talk about this and that, debate, tell the latest News, etc. If you proceed like that, many guests will have to wait outside until they have a chance to pass you, and you will be very busy. It would be better to open the door, let everyone in, recognize everyone, but not to talk to everyone for a long time, so that everyone can come in. There will still be time for further talking later. Now transfer this to the situation in our mind. There are always many thoughts that rush into our mind. And usually we spend a lot of time on each and every thought, discuss, debate, follow a line of thought, consider consequences, analyse implications, etc. By this we can never have a clear mind, because all the thoughts that are still waiting for their turn make us feel stressed and overstrained. During the meditation you let all thoughts in, like the party guests, but just recognise them and don’t let them start a deep conversation with you. When all thoughts are there, you have an overview and can say “Aha, these are the things I am thinking. Well, those thoughts are ill-logic and make no sense, so I won’t spend more time on them. These thoughts over there are interesting, I will focus on them later…”, and so on.
With the help of meditation we can understand ourselves much better and we can make strategies on how to behave in a healthy way in daily life. We can understand which behaviour is unhealthy (for example negative emotions that pull us down, or thoughts that keep us awake all night long), so that we can find ways to free ourselves from those patterns. It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult. I guess it takes years to gain an obvious effect from meditation (those 20-30 minutes every evening at home) on our daily routine (all the rest of the time, at work, in the subway, in the supermarket, on holiday, at home, etc.). Another analogy: In my very first swimming class, I didn’t enter the pool but practiced movements on a mat besides the pool, a dry practice. When the teacher was sure that I got it right, he let me enter the water. Meditation is the dry practice for the deep waters of daily life.
The goal of meditative practice is a clear pristine mindfulness, a being-in-the-moment, here and now. With this ability we expand the state of floating – the psychological term for indulging deeply in a hobby or pleasant passionate activity for some time, for example two hours that feel like 15 minutes – to the entire life. The practice itself is not easy and requires continuous and steady exercise. Among laymen, there is the common misconception that meditation is a form of relaxing, a kind of retreat on a pillow to step out of the stressful daily life. They underestimate that the attempt to disconnect the mind from default emotions and thoughts and to re-configure it in awareness of how things really are is a notoriously difficult and exhausting endeavour. The Buddhist traditions refer to a huge canon of instructions with detailed description of sitting positions (like Zazen), emphasising the importance of unhindered flow of Qi for the liberation of the mind. A central element of different forms of meditation is an object of mental focus that serves as an anchor or fix point whenever the mind drifts off into thoughts and emotions. Some meditations suggest real items like a flower or a Buddha statue, others employ the most natural constant clock that we have: our breath. In Zen meditations, whenever we notice a thought protruding into our pure awareness, we should draw our mental attentions back towards the flow of our breath.
Experiencing these difficulties makes many beginners give up soon after starting the practice. Progress seems slow and the efforts are not rewarded in the same way as for other exercises (like piano lessons – everybody can play at least a simple song after a few classes – or basketball exercises – everybody will hit the basket sooner or later). What even is progress or success in meditation, and how can we notice it? In Korea (maybe also other East-Asian countries, but I don’t know about that), the idea and progress of meditative practice is often described with 10 graphic illustrations that show the stages of herding an ox. It dates back to the 12th century (Song dynasty) when a Chinese Master called Gao-An Shiyuan composed the oldest known ox-herding series. Since then, every influential Master designed his own series of drawings and composed poem-like verses to describe each scene. Here, I’d like to explain meditation with the help of such a series of ox-herding pictures. I use illustrations by the skillful artist Peter Mahr.
- In search of the ox
Beginners of meditation often feel like someone who heard of rumours that somewhere out there is a wild ox, lured by the idea to have his own tamed ox, but having no clue where to start looking for it. Same as the man in the image may ask himself after some time whether the rumours are true, you may start doubting the usefulness and meaning of meditation. You start to consider various different ways of improving the practice. You find yourself at a complete loss as to what you should do. Maybe, after struggling for a while, you reach a point at which you consider giving up altogether. Although you have tried to practice, you cannot see any progress at all. To alleviate this sense of frustration, some people turn to other kinds of practices that seem easier, like praying to the Buddha, repeating the Buddha’s name, or reciting some sutras. By doing this, they lose the original goal of meditation out of sight. Therefore, for someone who is really interested in reaching a stage of increased mindfulness (in a symbol from the Matrix movie: someone who chose the red pill), it is of utmost importance to continue the frustrating practice! No worries, the next stage will come!
- Discover the footprints
Efforts in meditating can only be achieved with strong will and perseverance. You will face many obstacles that interfere with the practice, for example the people around you, your family, or some harmful friends telling you that you may as well drop the idea of meditation since it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. By resisting the temptation to just give it up (like the man deciding to go back home and live without a tamed ox), you will achieve the first small successes. When there is no progress, it is simply because you are not exerting sufficient effort yourself. To think otherwise is foolish. It is ridiculous to complain that no one is helping you when you yourself are not making any effort.
At this point you may also start to notice that here and there are footprints. Maybe you suddenly realise that you were sitting without any thought for 10 minutes, feeling like only 1 minute has passed. The time between two thoughts is increasing, and you get a feeling for what it means to have a clear mind. A spoor! This may lead you to believe that now you are surely on the right path. Your task is to follow these footprints. You have to proceed entirely on the basis of your own effort. You may proceed slowly or quickly, but no matter how you proceed, you have to go on your own. You only find your own ox by following your own track. Other people found other oxen by following their own tracks.
- See the ox
As you persevere in following the tracks of the ox, you finally begin to glimpse its tail or a horn behind a bush now and then. In this way you first catch sight of the ox. After practicing for some time, you gradually start to make progress. Occasionally, a little insight will light up for a few moments, die, light up again, and then die again. But, even the slightest experience of the pure mind, the Buddha Nature that the ox here stands for, is a proof-of-principle. It works! What you experience at this stage is something that you have never heard or seen before. Recognising now that such a thing exists, you reflect that it is probably correct to keep going in this direction. At such a moment the mind has to make an important decision: Continue or go home? Neo or Cypher (in terms of the Matrix movies)? Facing the ox may frighten the man. Find one’s Buddha Nature – a non-self – may be shocking for you. Only when you don’t give up now, when you don’t let the ox slip away again, when you proceed with confidence, you will be merited with your own ox. Although you are encouraged to continue, this is still an uncertain and ambiguous time.
- Catch the ox
To attach a rope to the ox is incredibly difficult and exhausting, requiring the endurance of physical and mental hardships. The fiery nature of the ox is hard to control. Whatever you do, the ox will always try to retreat quickly and run away. After you have caught the ox and pulled it toward yourself with great effort for a while, it will suddenly pull you off in another direction. You try to pull it back, but again it manages to drag you elsewhere. It goes on and on like this.
What exactly is this difficult time? It refers to the stage when the meditation is composed partly of the state of clear mind, partly of distracted thoughts, and partly of sinking into dullness. At this time, these three factors seem to be competing with one another: at some time you find yourself in a state of dullness, at other times beset with distracting thoughts, and at other times in deep concentration. Our strong ego, manifested in solid patterns and habits that formed over years and decades, rebels against a free and clear mind since that would lead to its destruction (which is the actual goal of all these efforts). This is a very difficult period because now you are really fighting with the ox, like Neo fighting with Agent Smith.
- Tame the ox
It is at this stage that you learn to handle the ox in the right way. Yet, this stage is still very critical. You become aware of the danger that the ox may be hurt or injured by your exerted forces with whip and bridle. In that case, all trust would be lost in a moment. At the same time, you don’t want the ox to break lose again and escape. This can be a very frightening time. From here, you can’t go back to a worldly life like before. You faced your Buddha Nature and can never ever again pretend that it is not there. People who reach this stage and stop here often drift off into nihilism or madness.
If you exert a great deal of effort for a while, then you will pass the critical moment. Thereafter, the ox comes following you voluntarily. This is the turning point. From an ox-less person we become an ox owner. We turn from a blind person into a seeing one. Once such a firm resolve has arisen in the mind, then you truly seize the abode of the meditative retreat. Now that the ox is being tamed in this way, the serenity of the mind is firmly held and does not move. The ego (as an external power over your mind) gives way to the Buddha Nature as the guiding force. Having passed over the critical moment, the ox now obediently follows without your having to grab hold of it and pull it.
- Ride home on the ox
The fight is over, we can go home. Now, when you sit meditating, your wandering mind stops roaming around. You are here. When you sit, you sit. When you eat, you eat. When you walk, you walk. You are at a point where meditation also works in the supermarket or at the workplace. You play the flute while riding the ox, because there is nothing that could shake your firmness, nothing to be concerned about. Left to himself, the ox will just follow the way it has to go. Now that it has been tamed, however much you ignore it, it will no longer go anywhere that is not allowed. As for yourself, no matter whether you are sleeping or moving around, standing or lying down, no one else will be aware of the inner composure you have attained. At this sixth stage the practice really begins to develop with every step.
- Forget the ox, take a rest
Now the ox is gone. First, you had to make an effort to hold on to the ox; then, after some time, it began to follow you with its own accord. At this stage, you do not have to pay any attention to it at all. It proceeds correctly along the way by itself. You are your Buddha Nature. Now, you can rest, doze, sleep, or whatever you prefer to do, because what costs you effort before, now proceeds constantly without any extra bit of mind power. Resting in balance and equanimity becomes part of our daily life. Even vigorous activities like working, driving a motorcycle, playing a music instrument or performing sports are, somehow, a way of resting in the Here-and-Now. Like in Daoism the wuwei (literally doing nothing), this form of inner stillness must not be mixed up with laziness and complete inactivity. It means that now you don’t do anything as the result of your fears and mind poisons (delusion, attachments, resistance), but as the result of your free and clear mind. There is no more waiting, since there is never nothing going on. There is no such thing as wasting time, since there is only this moment. Anyone coming and saying “Do something!” is just stirring up sand since you are doing the highest of all things all the time: Resting in mindful awareness.
- Man and ox are both forgotten
Both the ox and the man have now been forgotten, and you are sitting in silence and emptiness. Everything has been identified as constructs of your worldly default mind. In your initial deluded state, all phenomena – including space and time – are experienced as existing. But at this time, space and time collapse, there is only here and now. Finally, you grasp the real essence of what this means. Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness. Conventional and ultimate truth become one. This is finally the moment of awakening. This is the moment of complete freedom of mind. It is fine to come and fine to go. It is fine to lie on your back and fine to lie on your belly. Whether you are in hell, among the hungry ghosts, or amid the animals, everything is fine. If you find yourself in hell, in heaven, or in the Buddha lands, all you know is smiling mildly.
- Return to the origin
Finally you realize that you have recovered your very own treasure, which you had forgotten all about. When you quietly reflect on it, you recognise that all of the exertions you put into the practice were actually unnecessary. Now when you simply open your mouth, this is a teaching of Dharma; when you walk along, this is also a teaching of Dharma. All of this has been there all the time, but you had to walk a long detour and get rid of all the luggage, the ballast that you accumulated since birth. In fact, it would have been better, had you been blind, deaf, and dumb because then you would not have been dragged into doing so many useless tasks. But you saw, heard, and thought, all coloured and deluded by desires and fears under impact of the mind poisons. Now your seeing, hearing and thinking have been cleared so that everything you do, say and think is filled with the Dharma.
- Teaching on the marketplace
Now you are a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-like being that chose to remain in the world of Samsara rather than entering Nirvana in order to be of benefit to sentient beings. You cultivate the way of the bodhisattva in sharing your insights and gently hint others at wild oxen so that they can start their awakening process. You perform the deeds of a bodhisattva and embody the virtues of the Dharma (the Eightfold Path). Your mindful equanimity is unshakeable: If circumstances are favourable, you smile; and if circumstances are unfavourable, you still smile. With a laugh you take things as they are. In this stage, you are supporting all sentient beings in beneficial ways. Your karmic imprint on the world is tremendously positive! This is the highest state of mind you can reach.
For more details, further insights, and a great collection of other ox-herding illustrations, visit this website by Gabor Terebess!