Seoul’s winter of 1971 is ending. I am quieter. Zazen becomes part of the person who practices it. There is less struggle to steady the mind, sometimes it is almost effortless.
During that winter, Master Seo shows me two important clues for understanding silence. The first clue, known to millions of Buddhists, is an astonishing map showing the way to a silent gate. The second clue could only be discovered directly by me.
UNFOLDING THE MAP
The map in front of me is an ancient series of drawings sketched around 1150 CE by the Chinese Buddhist Master Kakuin. I am astounded by how familiar it looks. I know a map of human development when I see one, even if the drawings are from an entirely different culture and time than my own. The drawings provide a view of how humans unfold and grow.
Master Kakuin’s pictures show an ancient roadmap to an expanded human life. They present a far broader view of human possibility than I learned in my doctoral studies at the University of Maryland. The drawings are about transformation and the farther reaches of being human. The pictures are an ancient graphic story telling how humans can evolve and unfold to the fullest.
This series of ten paintings is called The Oxherding Pictures. (1) The drawings tell the story of finding and following one’s true path. Each successive picture portrays a further step. They are about the quest – the journey of awakening and unfolding through the course of an individual life. Ultimately, this is a navigational map for entering the timeless inner core of one’s being.
MOST BUDDHISTS KNOW about the Oxherding Pictures and the many meanings. This depiction of a spiritual journey grew out of the observations of shamans and Taoist monks in ancient China. The series of drawings show how some people “awaken” and move toward enlightenment. This is a model of spiritual development. In Buddhist terms, this is about the pilgrimage back home to one’s “Original Face”. Millions have observed how this process unfolds in their own lives. In the years ahead this map illuminate the path to Great Silence.
The drawings are an ancient road map to an expanded human life.
DRAWN ALONG A PATH
The Oxherding Pictures offer some radically new views of how humans develop. They tell the story of a boy wandering alone in a remote wilderness. Day after day he moves about, going from one thing to another. Occasionally, when the boy is not busy wandering, he rests. In these quiet moments he sometimes has a vague sense that something important is close by. He shrugs off the feeling, and goes back to moving from thing to thing.
Gradually, the boy begins to wander the wilderness in a more purposeful way. Pulled by some unknown source, he sometimes finds himself looking for something, even though he doesn’t know what he is looking for, or where he should be looking, or why he was looking to begin with. The more he searches, the more he realizes he is getting nowhere. One day, exhausted and frustrated by his endless wandering, he rests under some trees by a babbling brook. Surrounded by the soft buzzing sound of crickets and the quiet sounds of nature, he settles into a state of solitude.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE TREE?
Then, suddenly, something shocking happens. There, on the ground – is that a footprint? Or is it just his imagination? His hair stands on end. The boy looks frantically for more signs but finds nothing. After another period of busy searching, he is depleted and gives up again. Wearily he rests alone in the quietness of the wilderness. He listens to a nightingale sing and lets the beauty of the moment sink in. “The sun is warm, and a soothing breeze blows, on the bank the willows are green.”(2)
Then, in the beauty and stillness of that moment, a shiver runs through his body. There IS something else here. There is no doubt! If only I could be still enough, I could hear it. Whatever it is, it is very close!
The boy concentrates fiercely. Over time he has learned how to be empty and receptive, quiet and observant. He sees footprints going behind that bush! Whatever it is, it is right in front of him!
And then, a glimpse! A movement! It is real! It looks like a wild ox.
The story continues and tells how the boy catches and finally subdues the ox, the boy’s true nature. The boy has tried to solve the mystery by looking outside of himself. But the ox has been a part of the boy all along, waiting to be discovered and explored. By the eighth picture the boy and the ox have actually merged into one, incorporating.
In the earliest version, the story ends here. The boy, now a man, lives the second half of his life in unity and enlightened harmony. Later versions picture the man riding the ox back to his village where he settles into the quiet simplicity of his hut. He watches things around him grow, change, and come around again. He is living in the world as it really is, vast, sparkling, and unlimited. He has awakened and become his true self. Rather than adopting the role of a wise old sage, however, he goes his own way. He lives obscurely, off center stage, delighting in the joys of others. He tells no one what he has found.
OXHERDING PICTURE # 4: Boy Tames Ox
OXHERDING PICTURES # 8: No Longer SeparateSome of the villagers, though, begin to notice that he has a special quality. They feel touched by him. On their own, some villagers feel inspired to search for their own path of awakening. They start to see themselves in new ways. They begin their own quests and journeys, looking for that which has been lost in the everyday busyness of their own lives. Slowly, the villagers realize that they are seeking something inside. They were always enlightened, but just didn’t recognize it.
The Oxherding Pictures is a navigational chart. It is about the silent search for a fuller human development.
GLIMPSING THROUGH THE SILENT GATE
THE SCROLL: “OPEN DOORS”
As the zazen practice becomes steadier, my Zen guide leads me to a second discovery – a gate. “The Empty Gate” is an essential idea for the practice of Buddhism. It is an inner door, the entrance into the mind and beyond.
Sometimes Ven. Seo practices calligraphy when we sit together in the warmth of the temple. Just as East Asian poets and scholars have long done, he sits cross-legged on the square floor cushion in front of his knee-high dark wooden scholar’s table. On his low desk he arranges a hand-sized black slate ink-stone. There is a small reservoir of water, and some writing brushes made of wood and horsehair. He centers himself and spreads a sheet of rice paper on the top of his writing space. In a calm but intense silence, he dampens the tip of his brush and dips it into the thick black ink paste. In a spontaneous flourish of his brush, the large bold Chinese characters magically appear right out of the paper like a photograph developing in a darkroom. It happens in an instant – the delicate rice paper can tear if the brush touches it more than once.
“I made a gift for you!” he says one day. He smiles and hands me a scroll neatly rolled up and tied with a bright ribbon. I unroll it to see a four foot long sheet of rice paper containing four large Chinese characters. “It is a very important message for you”, he says.
The top character looks like the two doors of a gate [and is the graphic used here at the end of each chapter]. The calligraphy urges me to “open the door”. In smaller print down the two sides of the scroll he has written both our names in classical Chinese characters.
It is a beautiful message, but, as usual, I don’t quite get it. In the years ahead I pay close attention to gates that open onto new frontiers, windows that look out over unknown territories, doors that open into a cavernous room. I am just beginning a professional career of opening doors between profoundly different Eastern and Western cultures, South Korea and the United States. Ahead I will find an inner gateway into silence and the mysteries it holds.
Passing through the silent gate is a solo journey. I have the right conditions. My personal life in Korea is quiet and simple, so different from the active social life I have always lived. I am thankful for the few eager Korean students and professors who speak some English. In 1971, international telephone calls are rare and connections are frustrating.
Being alone in a Spartan room on the other side of the world is the most “away” I have ever been. Seoul’s long winters, like those of Boston, are full of blizzards and ice storms. I keep warm beside a large potbelly stove with a huge metal kettle and a chimney pipe stuck through a high window pane in my room.
As the harsh Korean winter melts into the earth, life becomes easier. We open the enormous green wooden temple doors to let the breezes and sounds of springtime come inside. The apple-scented incense, burning at the foot of the giant golden Buddha, floats through the rows of monks. We practice sitting on our black cushions. The thought of the Awakening Stick helps us balance our bodies and center our minds. We practice zazen, following our breaths. Above all we try not to wobble. Just breathing.
On the long sloping temple roof, a lone bird perches on a round-clay tile . . . chirping like a tiny silver bell . . . just relaxed and comfortable, so right and natural . . . the edges melting away . . . just all together. An interior gate opens and I fall in.
It is a solo journey through the silent gate.
LATER I WILL ASK, “WHAT WAS THAT!?” I had found the key to some unmarked door. When the door opened, I entered a vast unknown space, neither inside my skin nor outside. Kensho revealed a place of a deep stillness I had never before known. Becoming aware of an expanded being was a step toward finding the “Original Buddha Face”.
Finding this gate is a breathtaking experience. In the years ahead, I will stumble across many names for gates like this. It is known as kyŏsŏng in Korean, but most commonly known as kensho in Japanese and in the West. It is like Great Silence, the Still Point. Those who study these heightened experiences call it “unitary consciousness”. Buddhists see it as a meeting with one’s essential inborn nature. The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton describes it as “A door [that] opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths.” For the great human developmentalist, Abraham Maslow, it is a “farther reach”. (4)
Some call it “unitary consciousness”.
Kensho is a sudden shift of perspective, a not-very-subtle glimpse into a new reality, a heightened sense of the present. The world is still the ordinary world, now seen in its full magnificence from a different vantage point. It is here and it is real. Kensho is tangible evidence of a fuller human existence. It is a way to listen to the quiet inner impulse that is part of the Buddhist perspective.
This is “the beginner’s shallow glimpse” of a full awakening, a gate into a new reality at the core of being. It is like awakening in the dawn fog to find yourself on the edge of a giant canyon. I do not have the words to describe the experience called kensho, but there is also something faintly recognizable about it. Kensho is a step toward greater human development.
The guides in Korea have shown me a map and a gate. But what happens after the gate? Is there an inner pull to be more silent? Is there a still-undiscovered monastic energy to be drawn upon?
The mysterious stones that Professor Nam gave me remain as silent as rocks. Is there a larger story in the lines etched into the stones? I will find out decades later, after my heart surgery, when I can look at them freshly.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
- Do you resonate with any part of the Oxherding story? Write about what it means to you.
(2) Suzuki, D. T.(1994) The Manual of Zen Buddhism, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mzb/oxherd.htm
(3) Merton, Thomas, (1949) Seeds of Contemplation-Amazon https://amzn.to/2Lnj1JG
(4) Maslow, Abraham, (1993) The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Amazon– https://amzn.to/2Lj8G1g