Oxen Allegories


Oxen Allegories


Oxen Allegories

The Mindful Ox

Regarding Four Allegorical Drawings from the Indo-Tibetan 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 (about) the nature of things.”
(From the Sutras)

(Note: This article is to provide a schematic side note for The Mindful Ox allegories and not a complete analysis, as literally volumes have been written on the subject of awakening. It is a brief introduction to history and the interconnected processes of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and as well, a confirmation for those who need no introduction. The use of Sanskrit terms introduced are in italics.

The drawings represent four time-honored stages in the development of the awakened mind (bodhichitta) found in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, set forth 2,600 years ago by an almost mythical prince in India, and later refined by some of our planet’s most brilliant minds. The allegorical ox portrays one’s mind, and, even though oxherd drawings are more traditionally a form of the Chinese (Ch’an) and/or Japanese (Zen) Buddhist art than Tibetan tangka art, the decision to not depart from this established form was made, yet has been Westernized.



Samsara can be translated as “believing one’s thoughts”. In this first drawing a wandering being is seen following its ox as the ox looks back to see that the one is following and hoping its pursuit of thoughts will manifest and deliver its deepest desires. Yet, even in the achievement of one’s highly set goals, one suffers a recurrence of futility, as the results — no matter how grandly accomplished they are — never seem to meet one’s high expectations, much like a dog chasing a stick thinking it’s a bone. As a result, like fish floundering in a puddle, we grasp for more while following along empty-handed. This life of suffering, samsara, has its root in the utter misconception of the nature of existence.

This common, differentiated view of life composed of separate, concrete objects obscures and has concealed (rather than revealed) the un-differentiated nature of existence that has been lost. Instead, an imaginary stream of fabricated consciousness (delusion) is what compromises one’s daily life.


For the individual willing to earnestly seek and traverse it, a well worn path exists, leading to the cessation of ignorance and suffering. To be clear, this course is not one of adding to oneself, but one of cutting through one’s hazy obscurations to get back in touch with that which has been lost.

In Sanskrit, the word yana means ‘vehicle’ or ‘that which bears one about’, probably from the age of chariots. Hinayana then, translates as ‘lesser vehicle’ and its principles, practices and fruition are fundamentally based on the Theravada portion of early Budddhism, a period the Budddha was often regarded as a mere sage and an antagonist to the ruling brahmanic nobility. The full extent of his teachings was not clearly understood, that he was victorious in the overcoming of human sufferings and ignorance. An often-used term still refers to him as Shakyamuni, the term muni meaning ‘sage’ and Shakya his family. His teachings nevertheless set forth the tenets and principles that later became the indispensable and bedrock underpinnings for an individual’s liberation and tastes of future awakenings.

Countering samsaric misconceptions, teachings in the hinayana lead to the accumulation and cultivation of penetrating insights necessary to undermine the ego and liberate the individual by first taming the ox with quiet meditation (shamatha). This is where one acquires the tranquility to recognize and observe the operations of the mind, known as mindfulness.

Once established, mindfulness blossoms naturally into our everyday activities to cause post-meditation awareness (vipashyana), expanding outward, harvesting fresh, penetrating insights for nourishment. These practices become indivisible as shamatha-vipashyana. To see things as they truly are breaks the power of one’s fabrications and preconceptions and develops into a preference for isness. This carries the practitioner step by step, further and further away from the rampant, discursive, of inner gossip, until, as through a parting curtain, one experiences glimpses of the un-differentiated nature of Creation. Ironically, that same ego that set forth on this journey is abandoned along the way.


With the mahayana or, ‘great vehicle’, come new, deeper levels of teachings. Connecting with the foundational teachings of the hinayana, the mahayana advances Buddhism historically forward. Estimates place its origins in the 200 year span from 100 BCE to 100 CE, with speculation that its origins were founded within communities of forest mendicants, emulating the Gautama Buddha lifestyle, which began approximately 2600 years ago. In India, the mahayana golden age was around 200 CE to 700 CE, about 500 years, and came with a departure from oral traditions to the emerging of recorded sutras, spreading Buddhism throughout most of Eastern Asia.

A major pivot in its teachings from the Theravada was in its two-fold nature of selflessness, that the mahayana teachings were no longer for the sole benefit and liberation of the individual, but for the awakening and liberation of all sentient beings, thus becoming the central characteristic of the mahayana. Our ox is shown here, led about in the teachings and practice of ten perfections known as paramitas.  

These paramitas come with principles for practicing: the awakened mind (bodhichitta); the understanding of the nature of existence  (madhyamaka); the perfection of transcendent knowledge (prajnaparamita); and emptiness (shunyata). With bodhichitta, for instance, the mind is allowed to rest in its natural state and take its course to actualize its true nature, resulting in clarity, a union of mind, body and speech, the experience of joy, appreciation and compassion. And as well, perfect equanimity. Wakefulness.

With the paramitas mastered, completion provides conditions in preparation of an onset of buddhahood and omniscience (knowing the nature of all things).

Remember — we build nothing new, but remove the obscurations and obstructions that pre-exist.

Drawing 4: VAJRAYANA

The final leg of the path is the continuum (tantra) of indestructible, foundational, transformation. The diamond vehicle is an unceasing play of the natural state of dependent arisings. In this, the only action left is to let go completely of practices, doctrines, preconceptions. Let go of all that arise from our internal fortifications, ancestrally built for 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 and all is ‘one taste’ yet distinct in nature.

While we experienced previous instances of wakefulness, vajrayana implants the aspect of continuity (tantra) and freedom from all duality and conditionality. Ultimately, all is let go completely as we are restored to our right mind. We blissfully ride the ox home.

In an analysis of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, I find there is no ‘attainment’ or ‘enlightenment’. There is only preparing conditions for two eventual onsets: liberation and omniscience. In this, I wish everyone well.  –Michael

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


Back to the drawings: The Mindful Ox

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