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Oxen Allegories

The Mindful Ox

Regarding my Four Allegorical Drawings from the Path of Awakening :
( Click to see the drawings: The Mindful Ox )

“Buddhas neither wash sins away with water, nor remove the sufferings of beings with their hands. They transfer not their realizations to others. Beings are freed through the teaching of truth ‒ the nature of things.”
(From the Sutras)

(Note: I am posting this article to provide a more complete description of The Mindful Ox drawings than that which appears with each drawing in the collection; not as a complete analysis — literally volumes have been written on the subject of awakening — but as an introduction for visitors that are unfamiliar with Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, and as well, a confirmation to those who are. In this article, I’ve introduced some Sanskrit words and shown them in italics.)

These allegorical drawings represent the four basic, time-honored stages of awakening and enlightenment found in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, set forth originally nearly three thousand years ago by an almost mythical prince in India, and later to be refined by some of our planet’s most brilliant minds. In them, I’ve portrayed the mind as an ox. Even though oxherd drawings are more a form of Chinese (Ch’an) and/or Japanese (Zen) Buddhist art tradition than Tibetan tangka art, I decided to not depart from this established form, and have somewhat Westernized it.

 

Drawing 1: SAMSARA

In SAMSARA, we are seen following the ox as it streams its thoughts, looking back to see if we are following, as we hope that in following, our thoughts will materialize and deliver to us our deepest desires for happiness. Yet, even in the achievement of our highest goals, we find ourselves repeating the same cycle of suffering we previously experienced. This cycle then starts over. And again, fails repeatedly to yield to us the satisfaction we seek. As a result we grasp for more, all the while following behind empty-handed while our lives fill with confusion. Surprisingly, this suffering, in samsara, stems directly from a complete and utter misconception of the manner in which we exist.

And for each of us, this basic misconception engenders our preoccupation with the myriad of thoughts that rise and fall from disproven, science-based worldviews and superstitions. Our fragmented, conventional worldview has the tendency to conceal from us rather than reveal to us the true nature of existence. the ensuing confusion is thereby perpetuated. In our persistence a steady stream of fabricated consciousness (delusion) is formed that comprises our daily lives.

For the individual with a will to make the effort, there is an end to this ignorance and suffering. The next drawing leads to letting go of misconceptions and finding a way forward.

 

Drawing 2: HINAYANA

To be clear, this process is not one of building something or adding to ourselves, but one of finding and getting in touch with what already exists within each of us — that which is, and has been there all along.

As discussed, the source of suffering stems basically from the misconception of how, or, the manner in which we exist. In the hinayana, the ‘foundation vehicle’, we investigate, discover and learn a more precise nature of existence and as well, our place in it. To do this, the mind (our ox here) first needs taming, and given proper ‘food for thought’. Taming the ox is accomplished by sitting meditation (shamatha), while nourishment comes from hearing the once oral teachings on the matter and as well, from our own, meditative and freshly gained insights.

In sitting meditation we develop ‘mindfulness’, which I compare to ‘minding the store’, that is, recognizing just what is and has been going on … with the ox. Once mindfulness is established, its counterpart, awareness, blossoms naturally and is practiced in our everyday activities (vipashyana), expanding outward as we grow in meditative strength. In this way, awareness blossoms quite naturally, bringing with it fresh insight as nourishment. In meditation generation of insights transforms into wisdom (prajna), by creating a conduit of reasoning that can bring us to suchness, the ultimate nature of reality, the two practices eventually becoming indivisible.

Investigating further, we find neither our minds nor thoughts have inherent existence. Nor can the ‘self’ (ego) of persons or objects be found. What can be found is an impermanent aggregation (skandha) that we form, comprised of forms, feelings, perceptions, conceptualizations, with the resulting artificial consciousness that we impute to ourselves as identity.

To bridge the fright of this, we develop the cozy, comforting but fragmented notions that have become our conventions, stored away and recalled into recollection, conditioning  our actions, or, karma. The recognition of these as they arise is the definition of mindfulness. Seeing things as they are breaks the power of these preconceptions one by one, and we eventually find a preference for isness, carrying us away from our discursive, inner gossip.

This same process of abandoning preconceived notions of one’s self can then be extended to all phenomena, as we cut through the ordinary and begin to see the world as it truly is, both vivid and immediate, sublime, and quite beautiful as it flows unceasingly moment to moment, as a tender plant.

Altogether, a window opens that has been closed to until now, that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence and impermanent … our intelligence sees that nothing appearing in the observable universe is of an independent origin, and everything, including our bodies, our minds, our thoughts, our others, is inter-dependent, while having no inherent existence, as the entire observable universe is completely dependent upon the causality that proceeds from preceding moments and conditions, to create the play of new and ever-unfolding arisings, void entirely of preconceived concepts, notions and beliefs, names and terms. In Sanskrit this is called shunyata.

At this point, and having been liberated from our make-believe selves, a seed of genuine appreciation and loving kindness is found, giving rise to a blossoming, natural compassion for others — a genuine heart-awakening (bodhichitta). It is upon these things that our minds feed as we begin the practice of perfecting the indivisibility of wisdom and compassion.

 

Drawing 3: MAHAYANA

As we learn more we are better able to advance to this whole new understanding of the nature of things, found in the shravakha (hearer) teachings of Indo-Buddhism called “the Middle Way” (madhyamaka).

A short examination of the Middle Way finds there are two views of existence: 1) all phenomena exist permanently and independently, that they have inherent existence (permanence), and 2) all phenomena exist, but merely conventionally and have no inherent existence. Add to this the examination of non-existence and we also find two viewss: 3) all phenomena have no inherent, independent existence and 4) phenomena do not exist, that all that appears is illusion (nihilism). The middle way subscribes to the two middle forms, 2) that all phenomena exist conventionally, that is, they appear and, 3) no phenomena exist ultimately. The remaining views 1) and 4) are said to be extremes, and not subscribed to.

The extreme of nihilism 4) is expressed in the view that asserts no phenomena exists, even conventionally (it is all illusion); while the extreme of permanence 1) asserts that all phenomena exist ultimately (we inhabit solid bodies and are surrounded by a world of separate, concrete objects objects fixed in space and time). This latter is the most popular misconception, that everything in the observable universe exists independently … that all have inherent existence and exist independently.

A key to understanding the two truths of the Middle Way could be to regard an object in analysis the same way we do a coin, seeing there is a side that we call ‘heads’ and a side we call ‘tails’, while knowing all along, it is the same coin. In this case, the conventional side is what appears (heads — how we identify the coin), while the ultimate truth is it is absent of identity (tails). One view cannot exist without the other — they are inseparable sides to the same coin. To see things this way is to see things as they are, discarding the defective extremes of permanence and nihilism.

This new, formal phase of awakening is known as the mahayana, the ‘great vehicle’, the vehicle that bears us upon a path to the perfection of wisdom and compassion for awakened beings (bodhisattvas). Our ox, now lassoed, is led about in the practice of perfecting virtues. In the hinayana the practice is directed to the liberation of the individual, but now, the ego abolished, in the mahayana the aspiration for awakening becomes directed to the benefit of others.

Here we find the appearance of objects perceived by the ordinary (oxen) mind, is mixed or, dualistic — that is, the object perceived has a convention, or concept, imputed to it, a name, a label, a preconception or likewise. This imputation needs to be separated from the appearance of the object and abandoned to begin to see the object directly. A rigorous practice of seeing in this manner results in the ability to sees things as they truly are.

The true nature of all phenomena is that it is non-dualistic and non-conceptual, that is, it is absent of these appearances when it is being directly perceived: (1) the appearance of separation between observer and object, (2) the appearance of the concept of ‘true or inherent existence’, and (3) the appearance of conventions (names, labels, etc.). None of these appear when we directly perceive in a non-dualistic and non-conceptual manner. This can be tested. You can test this.

Both truths are always present, relative and absolute, and as reason shows, both are empty and without concept, as shunyata, too, is ultimately conceptual and an obstruction to seeing. Ultimate existence is non-conceptual awakening and beyond our intellect (incomprehensible!), yet can be experienced and known. The practice and production of wisdom can be compared to weaving a ‘conduit of reasoning’ that leads to what can be known as suchness, which is deeply transformative.

With the discipline (shilaparamita) of letting go of aspirations of enlightenment and allowing the mind to rest in its natural state, everything takes its natural course and we actualize our true nature, which is omniscience (knowing the science of all things) and rest in our natural state of mind, which is clarity. With this comes the union of mind and body, and speech, and the experience of joy, which manifests as appreciation and compassion. As well, equanimity. Wakefulness.

Remember — we have built nothing new. This has been within us all along.

 

Drawing 4: VAJRAYANA

The final leg of the path is the fruition of foundational, individual liberation and the perfecting of one’s practice. It is the continuous path to indestructible wakefulness (thank you Trungpa), the vajrayana, the diamond vehicle, which is the means that establishes a continuum (tantra) and unceasing play of the natural state and dependent arisings. In this, the only action left is to let go completely. Let go of practices. Let go of doctrines. Let go of preconceptions. Let go of all that arise from our internal fortifications, built for our own survival. Let go of effort.

Where previously we made a huge effort, our practice now becomes effortless … yet we still sit. We meditate, but formlessly. Effortlessly. The separation between sitting and taking action, or even thinking, that was once definable, no longer exists — all is non-meditation. There is no difference between samsara and nirvana. All is ‘one taste’, yest distinct in nature.

While we experienced previous instances of wakefulness, vajrayana implants the aspect of continuity (tantra) and with the abandonment of deep-seated, pre-conceptual notions, we eventually free ourslves of all duality that contaminates our perceptions. Our minds, body and speech, then pure, co-emerge with a now-sacred-regard for the phenomenal world, much like pouring water into water.

Ultimately, all is let completely go as we are restored to our ‘right mind’. Joyfully, we ride the ox home.

( Click to see the drawings: The Mindful Ox )

* * *

“Seeing, but not attaching to these views, I knew and saw inner peace.” (The Buddha Before Buddhism)

In a final analysis of Indo-Buddhism, I find there is no attainment or ‘enlightenment’. The learning and development of all processes is invaluable, but ultimately not the end result. There is, however, an attainment — that of the abandonment of all obstructions to seeing, thereby restoring our minds to the purity of our origins and the onset of awakening. In this, I wish everyone well.  –Michael

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