Ox Herding Pictures: Entering the Marketplace


Bare-chested, barefooted, he comes into the marketplace.

Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!

Without recourse to mystic powers,

withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.

The full title of this picture is sometimes Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands and it represents the stage of the path where you’re ready to share your wisdom and serve others. This is enlightenment proper, when you return to the world and bring the gifts of awakening with you.

Having realised Buddha nature you’re filled with joy and playfulness. Life can now be approached with absolute inner freedom as you transcend the struggles of day to day life. If problems arise now, you accept them joyfully and take everything with a sense of humour.

This is the time to return to the marketplace – to the world – and share your wisdom. Perhaps you’ll teach the dharma, or perhaps you’ll just continue doing what you’ve always done. Whatever you do, it’ll be infused with the truth of your deeper nature. You’ll live with compassion for all and offer yourself in service to others and alleviate suffering wherever you find it.

This is also a return to your ordinary self as an expression of Buddha nature. In Zen they say that your ordinary mind is Buddha mind so it’s really nothing special when you attain enlightenment. In fact, you haven’t really ‘attained’ anything, since you always were Buddha. There’s also the idea of not showing off or not making an issue out of your insight or gifts. It’s very easy for the ego to sneak back in and slowly take over again. The further along the path you get, the more subtle the ego becomes and the harder it is to see when you’ve fallen off the path. (or off the ox!)

What this means is that you never really stop practising or learning. In some ways, you’re always at the beginning. To navigate the fine line between duality and non-duality takes a lot of skill and practise, but it’s the only way to be truly free. As Anadi explains:

“A free man lives beyond the mind in the state of non-conceptualisation, but our ability to use concepts is indivisible from our functioning and naturally needs to be integrated into our natural world. In Buddhism, this is depicted by the archetype of Manjushri, a Buddha of wisdom. Wisdom requires discrimination, and discrimination requires duality – duality within the mind itself. Hence, Manjushri is usually shown with a sword, which serves to cut non-duality into polarities in order to create the space for intelligence to produce differentiation and wisdom. To be stuck in the mirror-like consciousness and the state of suchness is to fail to enter the world of function, and hence to fail to realise the very purpose of enlightenment, which is to experience the totality of life.”

Walking the Circle

The journey of awakening is one you’ll make many times as you circle round the stages of this path and discover new layers and depths of truth within your being. It takes a long time to become a fully realised Buddha, even if that truth is your birthright from the moment you’re born.

Manifesting that truth day to day is a challenge and you won’t always succeed. But using the Ox Herding Pictures as your guide, you can find your way back to the Source and remind yourself who you are, always were and always will be.

Further Reading:

>Read the whole Ox Herding series here

Paintings by Jikihara Gyokusei and Verse by Kuoan Shiyuan 

*Note: this was a rewritten and expanded version of an earlier series (Dec-13)

If you enjoyed this, you might like my series on the Eightfold Path


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