The Buddhist teaching of Zen Ox Herding, or “Taming the Ox,” surveys the 10 stages of Enlightenment as it unfolds in a human life. In this teaching, the ox is a symbol for Enlightenment — the goal of Buddhist studies. (It is believed that the ox symbol was chosen due to East Indians’ reverence for cows, which are considered sacred.)

What is Enlightenment?

Instead of being an experience, Enlightenment transcends all experiences, all duality. Enlightenment is the full, embodied and abiding realization that while the forms of this world are ever-changing, something lasting and infinite persists, uniting everything. Separation is seen as an illusion; all forms have this “Buddha nature,” arising and returning to it, never apart from it. The Enlightened person is perpetually in touch with this eternal Source.
The journey toward Enlightenment begins by seeing the world as mundane and made up of separate forms. It culminates with the realization that nothing is mundane or separate — all is unified Oneness. It is said that each of the 10 phases of Zen Ox Herding can take years or lifetimes, but in rare cases, minutes, hours or days.

  1. Seeking the Ox. All people are already “seeking the Ox,” searching for fulfillment and happiness in their work, relationships and other worldly pursuits.
  2. Finding the Tracks. In this phase, the insight dawns that all worldly forms come and go, leaving just fleeting satisfaction. Something more lasting is sought.
  3. First Glimpse of the Ox. This refers to a person’s first “spiritual experience,” or satori (flash of insight.) It can take the form of an epiphany, Oneness-awareness while out in nature, a near-death experience, or kundalini during meditation. The “glimpse” makes an impact and inspires us to continue on the journey.
  4. Catching the Ox. At this stage, changes in focus and life structure are inevitable; one begins to lose attachment to material things and may change their job, relationships or other circumstances to make their spiritual journey a priority.
  5. Taming the Ox. The seeker becomes aware that there is a “Watcher” dimension within them that is independent of thoughts, perceptions and emotions. It is the space from which all “I” thoughts arise.
  6. Riding the Ox Home. This “Watcher” dimension grows stronger as the advancing practitioner is no longer ruled by the mind, thoughts, ego, and who they thought they were. We may have thoughts and emotions, but we become less and less prone to being swept away by the “monkey mind” or identifying with it.
  7. Ox Forgotten, Self Alone. We realize that we are not apart from our Watcher dimension, True Nature, or Oneness. The “seeker,” the “seeking” and the “sought” are all of the same energy field and therefore one and the same; however, we may still experience ourselves as a separate being.
  8. Both Ox and Self Forgotten. Separateness and duality evaporate as as we see ourselves and all things as part of the All That Is, the Oneness. It is a visceral experience, not just an idea or concept.
  9. Return to the Source. While Oneness is seen as the Source of All That Is, forms were thought to emerge and return to Oneness instead of being continuously synonymous with it. In this phase, the linear time illusion/construct dissolves; past, present, future and all forms are appreciated as the timeless Now of Oneness.
  10. Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands. The Enlightened “person” is now the embodiment of Awakened Consciousness and returns to “mundane” life, knowing that nothing is mundane; All is Oneness at all points in time and space. Bliss, gratitude and unconditional love prevail.

The Buddhist teaching of Enlightenment overlaps with Christianity in that both emphasize being “in the world, but not of the world.” After Enlightenment, the forms of the world are appreciated, with no attachment or aversion. Love and deep compassion reign, and while “samsara” (reincarnation) ends, many choose to help others become Enlightened (the bodhisattva path.)
For more articles and readings visit our collection of Buddha Groove Articles