Lassoing an Ox

I didn’t expect my journey toward enlightenment to begin with a baggy animal with gigantic horns and skinny legs caked with mud. My only image of an ox comes from an old National Geographic and a distant zoo memory. You don’t see oxen on the cross-town commute, at the school playground, or tending your backyard vegetable garden. Not even in Texas. Yet, over pasta salad and hard rolls I was facing down ten of them.

The Ox herding Pictures are a traditional teaching tool created in China a thousand years ago to bring Zen Buddhism to ordinary people. These ten images, representing the stages of a spiritual journey, are sort of like the Catholic Stations of the Cross, which were also developed to bring the distant and lofty into an easy-to-follow visual form. In each of the ten Ox herding pictures, a story unfolds in which a man, representing the Self, pursues, captures, tames, rides, and even loses an ox. The ox is of course a stand-in for Enlightenment.

I had signed up for this series of lunch-time lectures at Seton Cove, a spirituality center, with my friend Carolyn. Secretly, I’d looked on it as a guarantee of weekly chats with her, because between conflicting schedules and traffic gridlock we struggle to meet face-to-face. Our instructor was Flint Sparks, a Zen Buddhist priest and psychotherapist, whose clever name hints of a sharp wit and intellect that’s built his reputation as a much-loved teacher.

Munching on a chocolate chip cookie, I skipped ahead on the handout, assuming that like many things, excepting algebra and car mechanics, I was in the higher percentile of development. Yet I was surprised I couldn’t relate to a single image—I could relate to nearly all of them! Was I frantically chasing the ox or blissfully riding it? Was I leading the vast animal with a rope or were we united into a simple circle hovering in the middle of the page?

After we pushed aside our plates, Flint asked us to focus our attention on the first picture. It showed an innocent and slightly daffy-looking Chinese man with a top knot and cautious air searching blindly in the woods. His perfect world had been disturbed and now he was searching high and low for the ox. Sitting in silent embarrassment, I recognized myself.

Recently I’d spent many a night lying awake searching aimlessly in the thicket of my brain for peace. This much I knew: the summer I turned 43 I thought I had Life figured out and Happiness forever nailed down, yet within days the plot twisted, the key didn’t work, the rug was pulled out.

First, I was swept into the mass effort to help families uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Though I provided support in many forms, I often felt powerless. Six months after the hurricane, I had little to show for my attempts to help especially one large family. What sustained them in the face of wave after wave of loss was hope. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help looking ahead when FEMA benefits and donations would run out and they would be homeless again. The triple-whammy of poverty, illiteracy, and disaster left me staring at the blank walls of my soul.

Then I lost my mother—not in the sense that most people lose a parent, to cancer or old age or a sudden heart attack. I lost her in the way I might have when I was a child, letting go of her soft glove in a busy store. Lakes of tears gathered in my chest as I finally let go of all hope that she could one day be a mother to me—someone who called to check on me, adored my son (her only grand child), and could offer support or useful advice. She had never been that person and now I suddenly knew what anyone who loved me had known for forty years: she never would be. In some ways, losing someone who is still alive is more lonesome than death. No one sends flowers. No one brings a casserole. The mourner still must go to work each day.

So, while I managed to keep the exterior details of my life—my family, house, job—perking along seemingly without disturbance, my inner world was hanging crooked on a single hinge.

So, sitting in the lecture I realized I had a lot in common with this funny little Chinese man.

But I didn’t like the ox. I raised my hand.

“What is our Ox?” I asked.

Flint glanced appreciatively at my little foray into audience participation, but he also looked mystified by my question.

“I mean, for a Chinese man in the 12th century owning an ox would mean a lot, right?” I continued. “You could farm your land and feed your family, pull a cart, maybe breed it and provide for future generations.”

“Yes,” he replied. “In this class we will be considering what the Ox represents to each of you . . .” I had strayed, like an ox, from his lecture plan.

Feeling stupid and still dissatisfied I shut up and listened. Later, driving back to work, I thought about what the Ox of a twenty-first-century woman would be. What single metaphor could capture the full functionality of an Ox? Maybe my Ox was a digital device, with email and Internet, infinite cell phone range, and my favorite music—from my first Jackson 5 album all the way through the gospel CD I bought just last week. Of course this clever device would update, download and back itself up. But I would also need it to get me to work and to the grocery store, preferably without traffic. And wouldn’t it be nice if my Ox had dinner on the table by seven? Maybe the right metaphor was a great big pile of money—or better yet, a Visa card with no limit. Or a nanny. Or maid. Or simply a wife.

Clearly, my Ox is a full-functioning flying robot with an internal drive linked with the Federal Reserve.

Flint described what brings people on this search for the Ox is a deep dissatisfaction, the famous dukkha or suffering the Buddha described so very long ago. This unpleasant unease occurs as a direct result of trying to grasp control of one’s life and expect certain outcomes. Flint offered another metaphor: the trueness of a wheel. Having bent my car axle in a rainy-day wreck once, I knew the exact feeling of driving with a wobble. The faster I accelerated, the harder the car pulled to the right. But if I slowed and loosened my grip I ambled along, swaying slightly like a covered wagon. Truing the wheel requires meditation, practicing acceptance and letting-go, being present in ordinary moments of daily life, and acting in recognition that we’re all connected.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. What I’m learning is that the ten images of the story are not meant to be a single highway to happiness. This practice is more like a deer path that wanders and winds back on itself. Like a family vacation, the journey to Enlightenment is at least half the fun—and then there’s always the long drive home again.

To see the Ox-Herding Pictures: click here

To see what’s up at Seton Cove: click here

To see an ox: click here
Robin Bradford is an award-winning short story writer and essayist. She has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, Boston Review and many other places, picking up an O. Henry Prize along the way. Find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24
Tales of Motherhood
, and Grrl Talk: Sass, Wit and Wisdom. Bradford works as development director at Foundation Communities, a nonprofit affordable housing provider for families and homeless individuals. Being a mother, wife, breadwinner, and writer are her Buddhist practice. Visit her at www.robinbradfordwriter.com