A Zen bull story illustrates self-realization/enlightenment or experiencing trance/thoughtlessness during meditation. Each person will decipher this story as per his own understanding.  Each seeker goes through a different path and experiences. It is never identical to another person’s story. But understanding the meditation concept through Zen bull narrative was simply an exhilarating experience to me. This picture format account is interesting and easy to understand the complicated phenomenon of enlightenment/self realisation/turia state. What exactly happens when self realisation takes place. How do you feel going into trance mode? How being enlightened makes the difference to worldly life? Each person on a spiritual path seeks these answers diligently. This ten Zen bull story attends your curiosity delicately. 

Guo-an Shi-yuan (also known as Kakuan Shien), 12th century monk, elaborated a traditional Taoist story with 10 images along with descriptive verses. His version of the story became very popular as it was easy and impactful.The ten pictures along with its verses used here are taken from the Reps’ book. However, these pictures are scribbled by me taking clues from the popular version of the story. 

According to our Rishis consciousness can be experienced in four states: waking, dreaming, sleeping and turiya. The fourth state is  our true nature as per Jnanis–we feel pure bliss and experience universal consciousness. Each yogi’s ultimate goal is to experience the fourth state. The zen bull story can be decoded in multiple ways. Let’s assume that here bull signifies the fourth state “turiya” and the oxherd is chasing his bull–higher consciousness.  

Please feel free to comment with your own version or understanding of this tale.

In the pasture of this world,  I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull. Following unnamed rivers,  lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull. I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Interpretation: I search for my true being in the form of bull. I try different places and means to find it. I am exhausted with all efforts and now I feel weak and discouraged that whether I will find my bull any day.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints! Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

Interpretation: But God has different plan for me. I found footprints of bull under trees, grass side too. I regain my power and excited to go ahead. A change in my attitude has helped to see these signs. They were there earlier too but I fail to discover them as I was tracing through only my eyesight.

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore, Here no bull can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

Interpretation: As the agitation disappeared from my mind, I could see the footprints and now I can see that bull too. The bull cannot stay away from such a lovely atmosphere–accentuated by lush green grass, warm sun in the sky, gentle breeze along with melodious songs of nightingale. A perfect backdrop for the bull to show his presence!

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

Interpretation: I had put lots of efforts to seize the bull as he is giant and powerful. He was enjoying his freedom. How will he allow anyone to control his direction? But I could manage it with great difficulty.

The whip and rope are necessary, Else he might stray off down some dusty road. Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle. Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Interpretation: I was carrying the whip and rope along with me that helped me to get the control on the bull. Otherwise, it was not possible to tame the mighty bull. Now, he follows my (his master) instructions.

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Interpretation: Now bull has got used of his master and he doesn’t make any efforts to run away. Both of us are comfortable with each other now. Now, I return home riding the bull and enjoying music of my flute. I am happy that I found the bull, captured him and brought home too. A bull enjoys the melodious tunes of my flute and so everyone who hear it along this journey.

stride the bull, I reach home. I am serene. The bull too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

We (both I & bull) have covered a long distance in this journey. Both of us are quite tired. My bull can take good rest now. I don’t feel the whip and rope are required anymore. I just allow the bull to be there. We are comfortable in each others company.

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Interpretation: I can feel that I am a part of that a big universe–universal consciousness. We all, bull, rope, whip are a very tiny part of that infinite universe and at the same time we are the universe.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without — The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Interpretation: It has taken too long to return to the self. I had to go through a such extensive journey. But truth is that my bull was with me only. He was never lost. I just couldn’t find within me. A human being blessed with senses finds it hard to tune to his true nature. Flowing river and blossoming flowers don’t have such doubts as they just follow their true destiny It feels great being home; just like river, mountains and flowers, I have discovered my true identity and destiny finally.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

Interpretation: I feel the bliss which I never felt in my life. I no more worry about what would people be people thinking of me. I am mingling with people in my own genuine avatar. I don’t feel the need of being masked anyway. I don’t want to add years to my life by exploiting natural course of life. It is so blissful to be the way I am!