Feb 19, 2024

Applications Of Zen From Sage To Samurai: The Path Of The Samurai and The Path Of The Sage - Side By Side Using 'The 10 Oxherding Pictures'

As I began my study of Zen in earnest, I realized that Zen by itself is just a technique. Whether one makes it spiritual or a means to help a warrior, it is a life path/culture choice and not something that comes prepackaged in Zen.

In other words, it’s one's own cultural conceptions that dictate the best path and means for training a new student to zen. In the ancient Chinese system the path of the Sage was taught. One had to purify their mind-body with meditation and culturally accepted forms of asceticism. In Japan, they had a feudal system, and it was the Samurai that first adopted Zen. Since the Samurais ruled Japan in the early days, their religion of zen eventually reached every level of the Japanese culture, making Japanese Zen the path of the warrior as their training system was about hardening the person for battle and learning to let go and flow in fighting as only zen can teach a person.

The following is the training format used to train people in Zen. The first one was made in Japan and was used by warriors (Samurai), taken from: The Religion of the Samurai - A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan By Kaiten Nukariya [1913]

- and the second was created by Chinese monks and was used by people pursuing that path (I call it the path of the Sage, far Eastern style), taken from Manual Of Zen Buddhism by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki [1935]

While both paths claimed that one could reach enlightenment immediately upon hearing the explanation of zen or slowly or never, their approaches are distinct from one another. The Samurai method involves learning to attain spontaneity and has thus emerged in all art forms in Japan that are Japanese by tradition. The Sage method also has that goal but in addition to this has additional training to “purify” the mind that is deemed necessary before one properly experiences zen. It’s only the Samurai and the ancient Japanese culture with its offshoots that embody the warrior path of zen in its totality (which may have been adopted by the ninjas and other martial arts schools as well since zen is vital for keeping your cool while fighting like it could be used to keep your cool as a professional athlete).

The Path Of The Samurai and The Path Of The Sage - Side By Side Using The 10 Oxherding Pictures

The 10 Oxherding pictures are a traditional tool to teach a student bout the path of zen. It consists of a series of pictures outlining the path the student must walk. What's interesting is that this path differs a little depending on the goal.

Key: The Cow or Ox represents the mind. The Person is you or the one seeking to learn about the mind and experience zen (which is a mental experience). You can imagine the cow/ox as a bicycle or a car and get an idea of the learning process these series of images seek to explain.

Path of the Samurai - 1:

The first picture, called 'the Searching of the Cow,' represents the cowherd wandering in the wilderness with a vague hope of finding his lost cow that is running wild out of his sight. The reader will notice that the cow is likened to the mind of the student and the cowherd to the student himself.

"I do not see my cow,

But trees and grass,

And hear the empty cries

Of cicadas."

The person is unaware of his or her mind except as a word or something they

have been told they “possess”.

One is embedded in communal life, following societies norms of what’s right and wrong. Including what one should hope for, think or dream about i.e. following what they are told without any thought except where allowed by society itself. The person reacts to life instinctively like an animal in its natural habitat.

“To be conscious of the original mind, the original nature-

Just this is the great disease of Zen!”


Example - If the mind were a bike or a car: This is the time when you know nothing about riding a bike or driving a car.

Path of the Sage - 1;

1. Undisciplined

With his horns fiercely projected in the air the beast snorts,

Madly running over the mountain paths, farther and farther he goes astray!

A dark cloud is spread across the entrance of the valley,

And who knows how much of the fine fresh herb is trampled under his wild hoofs!

The Sage path sees the mind in its natural SOCIETAL state as dangerous. The mind roams around causing problems (trampling the grass).

Path of the Samurai - 2;

The second picture, called 'the Finding of the Cow's Tracks,' represents the cowherd tracing the cow with the sure hope of restoring her, having found her tracks on the ground.

"The grove is deep, and so

Is my desire.

How glad I am, O lo!

I see her tracks."

Here one begins to learn about the mind (themselves). You figure out what you mind is composed of by what you react to in fear, pain or pleasure. You learn that all senses feed the mind with information. You know you can think logically about stuff and thus logic is an aspect of the mind. In other words, one learns about their mind by learning what sorts of behaviours, thoughts and actions count as mental activity. These are the footprints of the mind

The mind is: 

Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself;

Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.


If the mind were a bike or a car; Now you begin to learn how the bike or car operates without actually beginning to learn how to operate one yourself. You learn about riding a bike and driving a car intellectually (mentally) first.

You cannot get it by taking thought;

You cannot seek it by not taking thought.


Path of the Sage 2;

2. Discipline Begun

I am in possession of a straw rope, and I pass it through his nose,

For once he makes a frantic attempt to run away, but he is severely whipped and whipped;

The beast resists the training with all the power there is in a nature wild and ungoverned,

But the rustic oxherd never relaxes his pulling tether and ever-ready whip.

Discipline is the rope you have which which you can begin to control the mind. You learn how to discipline the mind.

To save life it must be destroyed.

When utterly destroyed, one dwells for the first time in peace.

One word settles heaven and earth;

One sword levels the whole world.


Path of the Samurai - 3;

The third picture, called 'the Finding out of the Cow,' represents the cowherd slowly approaching the cow from a distance.

"Her loud and wild mooing

Has led me here;

I see her from afar,

Like a dark shadow."

The more you study the philosophy of the mind or engage in discussions about the mind and it’s attributes, the clearer becomes your understanding of it.

Being able to see your cow means you are beginning to get an idea of what your mind is. In other words, the mind is getting to know itself.

Note: A Samurai is already well trained in physical activities so has a good level of concentration already established (this often includes relaxation and at least one meditation technique) so training the mind - exclusively - isn’t their focus.

If the mind were a bike or car; Here you begin to learn how to ride a bike or drive a car by practicing regularly.

Path of the Sage -3;

3. In Harness

Gradually getting into harness the beast is now content to be led by the nose,

Crossing the stream, walking along the mountain path, he follows every step of the leader;

The leader holds the rope tightly in his hand never letting it go,

All day long he is on the alert almost unconscious of what fatigue is.

The discipline is bearing fruit and the mind is becoming “domesticated” or “purified” of lazy/bad habits and habitual instinctual behavior. As you can see the head of the ox/cow is turning white signifying that the mind is getting trained and is at about 1/15 trained after much discipline. The mind being trained or ‘purified’ means that the mind is beginning to cause less damage to themselves and to others, i.e. the stuff called bad in normal religions is beginning to get cleansed away (such as greed, envy or jealousy… stuff that ‘clouds the mind’ or is like ‘dust on a mirror’).

Path of the Samurai - 4;

The fourth 'picture, called 'the Catching of the Cow,' represents the cowherd catching hold of the cow, who struggles to break loose from him.

"Alas! it's hard to keep

The cow I caught.

She tries to run and leap

And snap the cord."

You seek to take control of the mind. You understand you have to silence it but it keeps chattering on. You discover trying to grab ahold of the mind with the mind is like a snake eating it’s tail (a catch-22 situation). It’s like how difficult it is to quiet the mind when you first learn how to meditate. in fact, learning to meditate and fight while not letting the mind get in the way of fighting (sparring/practice) was probably the technique being employed. A basic meditation technique, called zazen, would also be a part of the Samurai’s practice here.

If the mind were a bike of a car; Now you are beginning to get the hang to riding the bike or driving the car.

Path of the Sage - 4;

4. Faced Round

After long days of training the result begins to tell and the beast is faced round,

A nature so wild and ungoverned is finally broken, he has become gentler;

But the tender has not yet given him his full confidence,

He still keeps his straw rope with which the ox is now tied to a tree.

After much training a turning point is reached and the mind begins to become compliant to your wishes and begins to bend to the disciplinary practices as it is supposed to. The cow is half white which means that the mind has been half ‘purified’ with intensive training in meditation.

Path of the Samurai -5;

The fifth picture, called 'the Taming of the Cow,' represents the cowherd pacifying the cow, giving her grass and water.

"I'm glad the cow so wild

Is tamed and mild.

She follows me, as if

She were my shadow."

You have begun to gain control of your mind. You can sit in meditation for a while. You can change bad habits into good habits. You can flow when working (or fighting if a Samurai) or doing any activity to some extent. You move smoother and your reflexes are faster. You have a mind that you have some control over.

If the mind were a ike or a car; You have become a fairly good bicycle rider or car driver by now. You drive easily and freely wherever you want to go.

Path of the Sage - 5;

5. Tamed

Under the green willow tree and by the ancient mountain stream,

The ox is set at liberty to pursue his own pleasures;

At the eventide when a grey mist descends on the pasture,

The boy wends his homeward way with the animal quietly following.

After much discipline the mind is so ingrained in its habits that it’s almost tame and follows you around, i.e. it wants to follow the discipline as it’s become domesticated to the path of the Sage. The cow is ⅔ white signifying the mind is 75% ‘purified’. There is still more meditative training to do.

Path of the Samurai - 6;

The sixth picture, called 'the Going Home Riding on the Cow,' represents the cowherd playing on a flute, riding on the cow.

"Slowly the clouds return

To their own hill,

Floating along the skies

So calm and still.

You have a complete grasp of zen philosophy and practice. You have attained “the flow’. You can do your meditation easily and it feels as if no time passes because you’re enjoying it. You can fight (or engage in your profession) without thinking, having become an expert. You can change your mind, in accord with circumstance, instantly. Habits are easy to change.  

If the mind were a bike or a car; You are now so good at your bike and/or car that you can do tricks. You now have real skill.

Path of the Sage - 6;

6. Unimpeded

On the verdant field the beast contentedly lies idling his time away,

No whip is needed now, nor any kind of restraint;

The boy too sits leisurely under the pine tree,

Playing a tune of peace, overflowing with joy.

The mind is now completely trained/domesticated to your specifications. You want to discipline yourself with meditation all day? You can do that and not feel any different. The Ox has almost become completely white signifying it’s almost completely trained now and under your control. Just a little more meditative training to go.

If the mind were a bike or a car; You are now so good at your bike and/or car that you can do tricks. You now have skill.

Path of the Samurai - 7;

The seventh picture, called 'the Forgetting of the Cow and the Remembering of the Man,' represents the cowherd looking at the beautiful scenery surrounding his cottage.

"The cow goes out by day

And comes by night.

I care for her in no way,

But all is right."

One has mastered zen in daily life and can now do all the daily activities and chores that is normal to everyday life as if one were on vacation or if the the mind has no attachments (non-attachment is mastered). You just do what needs to be done.

If the mind were a bike or a car; You can do really good tricks on your bike or in your car. The bike has become an extension of your body as if you and the bike were one. 

I obtained not the least thing from unexcelled, complete awakening, and for this very reason it is called “unexcelled, complete awakening”. - The Buddha in the Vajracchedika

Path of the Sage - 7;

7. Laissez Faire

The spring stream in the evening sun flows languidly along the willow-lined bank,

In the hazy atmosphere the meadow grass is seen growing thick;

When hungry he grazes, when thirsty he quaffs, as time sweetly slides,

While the boy on the rock dozes for hours not noticing anything that goes on about him.

The mind has been mastered by fully training it in harsh discipline & much meditation over many years. There is nothing wild left in the mind (signified by the bull/ox having gone completely white). The mind is completely tamed or cleansed of impurities, ‘like a mirror shining bright’.

The body is the Bodhi Tree;

The mind like a bright mirror standing.

Take care to wipe it all the time,

And allow no dust to cling.



Comparison: The sage also lets go and flows with life and lives its activities without any thought as the Samurai but have been through allot more specific mental and emotional training around feelings of empathy, compassion and “harmlessness” and thus the zen is experienced as some jacked up state of ecstasy or a combination of peace and contentment that has been ingrained in the mind with hard training so it can remain completely unmoved if that’s what the person chooses while radiating love/compassion (as that’s what the mind has been trained to do as is proper to The Path Of The Sage).

The Path of the Samurai- 8;

The eighth picture, called 'the Forgetting of the Cow and of the Man,' represents a large empty circle.

"There's no cowherd nor cow

Within the pen;

No moon of truth nor clouds

Of doubt in men."

You attain the supreme flow of zen where both you and your mind don’t exist. You just live in the world as if it were an extension of you.

Here you see beyond the categories and labels created by your mind to explain things. Everything just is.

Rather than using the mind to control the mind one just lets go. Without the mind to create a conception of the self, the self no longer exists. Without the mind creating labels to structure observation (the impressions from the senses) there is no external world. The external world has no meaning, it’s an illusion.

If the mind were a bike or a car; You and the car don’t even exist. Well, the analogy breaks down here but the idea is that you transcend both yourself and the world, mentally, i.e. it’s a meditation technique result called dhyana in Yoga and Zen in Japanese.

There never was a Bodhi Tree.

Nor bright mirror standing.

Fundamentally, not one thing exists,

So where is the dust to cling?


Path of the Sage -8;

8. All Forgotten

The beast all in white now is surrounded by the white clouds,

The man is perfectly at his ease and care-free, so is his companion;

The white clouds penetrated by the moon-light cast their white shadows below,

The white clouds and the bright moon-light-each following its course of movement.

Exactly the same level as the Samurai but with a different training program, i.e. you attain the supreme flow of zen where both you and your mind don’t exist. You just live in the world as if it were an extension of you. 

One has completed the mental training of the sage. The emotions that have been ingrained into your mind-body are compassion and discipline in a focused meditative state that is now a permanent living reality allowing the sage to completely emerge in the flow of life or to completely withdraw from it. It doesn’t matter. No more training is needed. 

Path of the Samurai - 9;

The ninth picture, called 'the Returning to the Root and Source,' represents a beautiful landscape full of lovely trees in full blossom.

"There is no dyer of hills,

Yet they are green;

So flowers smile, and titter rills

At their own wills."

You consciousness is irrevocable changed by the meditative experience but as come down from your state of meditative ecstasy you discover that nothing has changed. the world is the same as it was before. There is no deep meaning to life or events. No gods or goddesses or angels. Everything just is as it is.

If the mind were a bike or a car; You discover the bike/car exist. Despite disappearing they have returned. You drive/ride when you need to.

The blue mountains are of themselves blue mountains;

The white clouds are of themselves white clouds


Path of the Sage - 9;

9. The Solitary Moon

Nowhere is the beast, and the oxherd is master of his time,

He is a solitary cloud wafting lightly along the mountain peaks;

Clapping his hands he sings joyfully in the moon-light,

But remember a last wall is still left barring his homeward walk.

One has purified the mind with discipline till one is nothing but a sage. One lives in a state of ecstasy and joy as has been trained into him by years of training like an olympic athlete but for meditation.

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,

Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.


Path of the Samurai - 10;

The tenth picture, called 'the Going into the City with Open Hands,' represents a smiling monk, gourd in hand, talking with a man who looks like a pedlar.

"The cares for body make

That body pine;

Let go of cares and thoughts,

O child of mine!"

As human beings we tend to be communal in nature and the full experience of learning comes when we cease to become the student and become the teacher. IN other words we complete a natural human cycle of learning a skill and passing it on to the next generation. Once a person learns zen one teaches zen. That is the path. 

The Samurai is a part of his community and thus the zen that developed in the Japanese culture is about learning and then teaching or giving back to the community. So even their professionals, who follow the teachings of zen, will teach zen to their students so they get the true “flow” of their craft and their own individual flavor or doing things can be seen in their work. Once a person learns zen one teaches zen. That is the path. 

We have come full circle in this simpler and more natural path of learning about zen, how to dissociate from the world and the labels we impose on it to returning back to the world.

If the mind were a car or bike; Now you teach what you have learned.

Path of the Sage -10;

10. Both Vanished

Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left,

The bright moon-light is empty and shadowless with all the ten-thousand objects in it;

If anyone should ask the meaning of this,

Behold the lilies of the field and its fresh sweet-scented verdure.

One is now completely emerged in the zen state 24/7 but life goes on as before. 

“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world.

All we have to do after that-

Is to die.”


People don’t even know there is a sage amongst their midst as the sage lives from his or her original mind which is basically just human nature.

“Entering the forest he moves not the grass;

Entering the water he makes not a ripple.”


If the mind were a car or bike; Both bike/car and person no longer exist. The analogy no longer works.

When a monk asks, “What is the buddha?” the master may raise his fist; when he is asked, “What is the ultimate idea of Buddhism?” he may exclaim even before the questioner finishes his sentence, “A blossoming branch of the plum,” or “The cypress-tree in the court-yard.” The point is that the Answering mind does not “stop” anywhere, but responds straightaway without giving any thought to the felicity of an answer.

The zen master:

Neither avoids false thoughts nor seeks the true,

For ignorance is in reality the Buddha Nature,

An this illusory, changeful, empty body is the Dharmakaya

Cheng-tao Ke

I obtained not the least thing from unexcelled, complete awakening, and for this very reason it is called “unexcelled, complete awakening”. - The Buddha in the Vajracchedika

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