Roadmaps for Spiritual Paths

By Andrew Rooke

Before setting out on any journey, we usually consult a map or discuss the appropriate directions with someone who has traveled our intended path before. This is certainly the case when we plan a family holiday, or consider future steps for career advancement — how much more so then is it necessary for the spiritual paths we all tread? The spiritual journey is beset with false turnings, pitfalls, byways, and blind alleys for the unwary. We are fortunate therefore that the world's folk traditions and religious heritage provide us with many maps to guide us onwards to our goal of spiritual advancement for the human race and ourselves. These maps are usually written in the form of stories, pictures, or simple instructions which the mind can easily grasp and which will be passed on through the centuries to other travelers. Let's look more closely at one these maps, the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of Ch'an Buddhism, which provides a superb indication of the challenges and temptations found on the spiritual path.

Many people who are consciously engaged in spiritual searching speak of the signs or signals that appear spontaneously in life to guide our future steps. By this I mean both inward and outward choices that appear at strategic times in our lives that give us the opportunity to learn and contribute something positive to ourselves and the world, or the opposite if we choose to flow with negative forces. Such everyday spiritual signals may be seemingly unimportant events such as how we handle inevitable family disputes over seemingly trivial matters, or may be major decisions such as the choice of a career which is consistent with our ethical and moral beliefs. If we are perceptive, we can develop a sensitivity to such signals, which are nothing less than a godlike part of ourselves attempting to steer our footsteps along the spiritual path. In each lifetime, the immortal part of ourselves sends us forth on a journey of spiritual understanding exactly tailored to what we need to know to unfold the spiritual essence within. Hence the details of each life and the signals will vary with every person, but the opportunity is there for every one of us to consider our lifetime's lessons and try to work out what our higher nature is trying to teach us.

The folk, religious, and philosophic traditions of the world are replete with roadmaps for spiritual paths suitable for different types of people at different periods. The Buddhist tradition offers specific instructions to enable spiritual travelers to find their way in terms that are understandable to most people today. It clearly states what is required of the spiritual traveler in teachings known as the Four Noble Truths: first, life is suffering; second, the cause of suffering and heartache in our lives arises from attachment or "thirst" — trishna; third, this cause can be made to cease; and fourth, the cessation of the causes productive of human sorrow is brought about by living the life which will free the soul from attachment to existence by following the Exalted Eightfold Path: right belief, right resolve, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, and right concentration. This course of endeavor was called by the Buddha the Middle Way.

One way of presenting these ideas graphically, the Ten Ox-Herding pictures, was devised by a Chinese Ch'an Buddhist master in the 12th century and has been particularly treasured by the Zen Buddhists of Japan. They have their equivalent in the elephant-training pictures of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the horse-training pictures of Taoism. In a series of ten simple pictures this map guides our steps from the moments we become aware that there is such a thing as the higher life through the responsibilities of those who have found it. Let's look briefly at each picture and maybe they will help guide our footsteps along our spiritual path.

1) The Search for the Bull:

Ox-herding picture 1
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Everyone is searching in their own way for their true nature among the many distractions and entanglements of the world. In our quest, we think that it is far away, in the mountains and streams of the future, and we fail to see that the answer is close at hand amidst our own duties and routines. The "bull" never has been lost, it is part of us but we don't see it there, a bit like the glasses on our nose! This is a stage we are all painfully familiar with in our search for ourselves amidst the highways and byways of our own nature and the often confusing babble of religious and philosophical organizations.

2) Discovering the Footprints:

Ox-herding picture 2
Along the riverbank, under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in the remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.

Inevitably and eventually we discover the traces or footprints of our true nature or of how the universe may actually be in itself. These footprints cannot be hidden since they are everywhere in our lives; it is just up to us to be aware and sensitive to their existence. It may be an event in our personal lives, a book, a friend, a gathering of like minds, but eventually we become aware both that there is such a teaching about reality and that there is such an aspect of ourselves.

3) Perceiving the Bull:

Ox-herding picture 3
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

We pass from seeing the signs of truth to direct awareness of a truth really meaningful to us. We are overwhelmed by its beauty and power to move us, and nothing will prevent us from pursuing this knowledge from now on! This may be a special feeling when we read a book or some special moment of insight in our daily life. We move from a secondhand experience to direct perception and in doing so move, be it ever so slightly, from duality towards the Unity of all things.

4) Catching the Bull:

Ox-herding picture 4
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Once we know that there is such a thing as a greater awareness, life becomes difficult and we enter into a battle to tame the bull. Difficult situations arise from within ourselves, and we perceive ordinary situations in a different way which makes it hard for us to apply old ways of dealing with them. The "bull" seems insubordinate, used to his old ways, searching for new satisfactions while always remaining unsatisfied. This is the condition of many people on the spiritual path. We fail to see that the bull is actually part of ourselves, and are under the illusion that we can whip him into obedience.

5) Taming the Bull:

Ox-herding picture 5
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

As long as we are under the illusion that our inner nature (and that of others) is separate from our outer nature, the battle will continue. In fact the two are aspects of ourselves, both necessary in their own way. We should look for the best in ourselves and others, and thus gradually identify with the inner self. The "bull" is naturally satisfied and gentle and the "whip" and the "rope" are eventually not necessary. At first we need strong discipline to separate the real and unreal in our search for truth; later such an appreciation of immediate reality becomes instinctual.

6) Riding the Bull Home:

Ox-herding picture 6
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Riding the ox indicates assimilating one's outer self with the inner nature. Playing the flute indicates following the inner voice or music of the intuition in a similar way as Krishna is often pictured holding a flute. Flute and hands join in harmony with the universal symphony of infinity as we return to our spiritual home, outer and inner self united in this journey. The radiant presence of such an enlightened person in the world may eventually inspire millions who are struggling on the road behind; or as Buddhist poets would say, flowers come naturally into bloom as such a sage walks in the garden.

7) The Bull Transcended:

Ox-herding picture 7
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

The sage sits peacefully meditating in the moonlight of early morning, near his simple thatched dwelling with the formerly fearsome ox nowhere in sight — the sage is at last home! This picture emphasizes that all has been one since the beginning, not two. The "ox" was not separate from ourselves but rather the means of realizing Oneness as the sage is doing, sitting and meditating in the picture. The disappearance of obscuring clouds in the picture does not create the moon, but rather reveals its existence to us. As the Buddha taught: Buddha created nothing; rather he simply discovered aspects of the truth about how the universe works.

8) Both Bull and Self Transcended:

Ox-herding picture 8
Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

What is this! There is nothing here, no bull, no person, no situation — nothing or rather No Thing. Having reached home and bathed in the true reality without the obscuring clouds, we begin to realize that nothing is independent or permanent. All things are an integral part of the whole and therefore cannot be pictured separately as we had done before with the bull and the man. In this state of direct understanding, there is no need for complicated philosophies or religious dogma. All such are swept away as footprints in the sand by waves on a beach. Instead, here we find the footprints of those brave souls who preceded us in the direct apprehension of truth.

9) Reaching the Source:

Ox-herding picture 9
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one's true abode, unconcerned with that without —
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

A tranquil scene, such as one might see lying on a river bank watching the stream flow in midsummer. The willow dips lazily towards the water, with insects darting above the surface and a bird winging its way through our meditations. As we sit amidst this beauty, the thought occurs to us that immediate reality is the source of everything — the beginning and the end of every spiritual journey. The circumstances of living an enlightened or ignorant life are how we handle the reality of the Now. In this way we can awake to the Source within us; then we see that we need not actively be "seeking" or "gaining" — the treasure house is within.

10) In the World:

Ox-herding picture 10
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Our seeker, who suspected the presence of the Bull in the first picture, now returns to the world an illuminated spiritual teacher helping other questing individuals at the beginning of their search. Having touched reality as it is, he realizes that he is inseparable from the whole and returns to fulfill his duties to those who have the same potential but are not yet there. The sage seeks no ego fulfillment, special powers, or worldly reward of any kind but rather to live the bodhisattva ideal of service to others by providing guide-posts along the pathways of ignorance to light.

We can all identify with one or another of the Ox-Herding pictures, and seek information and direction from those which depict stages ahead of us on the spiritual path. We can find solace in the fact that the final picture shows that the purpose of the journey is not to retreat from this world of suffering for so many. Enlightened individuals who have trodden this path before us have not abandoned us to the byways of ignorance. Their and our path leads eventually back to the world and the never-ending task of lifting a little of the load of suffering from humanity's shoulders.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

Sunrise Back Issues Menu


It is in our power to stretch out our arms and, by doing good in our actions, to seize life and set it in our soul. — Origen