In search of our original self

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In search of our original self

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The Chinese Zen Master Pai-chang was famous for his saying, “A day without work is a day without food.”

One day a young monk came and asked him, “Master! What is Buddha?”

“You devil! You’re riding an ox in search of an ox.”

“What should I do once I find the ox?”

“If you’ve already mounted the ox, follow the path you’re on — what are you waiting for?”

“But how can I keep the ox?

“Just make sure it doesn’t stray into someone else’s field — that’s the ox-herder’s job!”

When the young monk heard these words he was suddenly enlightened. He prostrated himself before the Master and then ran into the Buddha Hall yelling, “My ox has gone into Pai-chang’s field! My ox has gone into Pai-chang’s field!”


The ox is used as a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. There are typically illustrations of a young boy searching for an ox depicted on the walls of Korean Buddha Halls — the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, which symbolize the search for enlightenment. In China a horse is used instead of an ox, and in Tibet the figure is an elephant. These illustrations are always fascinating, even after one has seen them many times. The Ten Ox Herding Pictures contain the complete answer the young monk in this anecdote was searching for.

In the first picture, the ox is not to be seen — there is only a young boy holding a broken halter in his hands. What does the broken halter mean? The first step towards cultivating our Buddha-nature is realizing that the ox was originally ours. In the end, cultivation is like Buddha searching for Buddha. That was the answer to the young monk’s question “Where is Buddha?” The Zen Master answered, “You’re riding an ox in search of an ox!”

In the next scenes, the young boy finds the ox after searching for it everywhere. He struggles to catch it with the halter – it’s not easy to control, as the ox is none other than himself. There is no tougher opponent in the world than our selves! The ox’s mighty forefoot symbolizes our stubborn attachments, its two piercing horns are our delusions. After repeated attempts, the boy eventually gets the halter around the ox. At that moment, the ox which had been struggling with the boy and pulling away approaches him meekly. When the wild, powerful ox — our self — is tamed, the reins around the mind relax. When the mind is no longer tightly controlled but at ease, the ox at last approaches on its own.

What should we do if we find our ox? Zen Master Pai-chang said to follow the path — but which path is it? It’s the path right before us — our everyday life and livelihood, and within this we can freely control our ox.

The young monk asked again, “How can I keep the ox?”

The young monk was worried about what he should do if he loses the ox again — he was asking how not to lose his ox (the enlightened mind), in other words, how he and the ox could become one.

Master Pai-chang responded, “Just make sure your ox doesn’t stray into someone else’s field.”

This means that you must steer your ox very well. The field is the mind, so if you have found your ox, let him romp around in the field of the original mind — this is the proper way to drive oxen!

The young monk took it one more step, and when he heard Pai-chang’s response had a moment of sudden awakening; from that perspective, his field and Pai-chang’s were the same. The young monk cried out, “My ox has gone into Pai-chang’s field! My ox has gone into Pai-chang’s field!”


Actually, the world before our eyes — the entire universe — is our field; all of reality, just as it is. We misunderstand the fundamental principle of the universe, however, so when we are deluded our ox goes into another field — the field of the ego.

Many people wonder how they can search for enlightenment with the same dedication as monastic practitioners. They can’t imagine how men and women who wear suits every day and go to an office could ever find their ox — not to mention those who stay home to raise the kids and take care of the house. They eventually lose confidence and tend to give up.

Zen Master Pai-chang admonished these kinds of people, “You devils! You’re already riding an ox in search of an ox.”

This means that the Wall Street executives in Hugo Boss suits and their corporate lawyer wives are also already riding the ox. In the end, we are not searching for something outside of ourselves — we already are it. This means that each and every one of us can find our ox, even if we are not full-time practitioners. We are already riding our ox — just merely oblivious to this fact.

If we realize this, a liberated life without any hindrances, a truly innovative life is within our grasp; we can control our ox as we please.
Call to your ox — “Woo Hoo! Woo Hoo!” It’s off grazing in a field somewhere.


*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.

Baek Sung-ho

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