Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hermit And the Oxherd

I noticed an interesting parallel between the Hermit card (traditionally numbered 9 in the Major Arcana) and the Ten Oxherding Pictures, which are an old Zen Buddhist parable of taming one's mind. To start, there is what the Zen masters called "monkey mind"- actually, this too was used as an allegory for the human mind, a monkey in a house, running around and looking out all the different windows of the house. First our thoughts are here, then there, then somewhere else. A variation of this has the monkey in a tree- first eating fruit from one branch, then another branch, all the time jumping around and never sitting still. This can be like our thoughts, chaotic and jumping from point to point, never settling down. However, Buddhism teaches training one's mind to relax, to stop and simply reflect- another analogy, the calmed-down mind has been likened to a mirror- simply reflecting what goes on, not judging or putting one thing above another.
So what does this have to do with this Obi-Wan Kenobi-looking guy? The Hermit represents mastery- notice the two things he carries in this picture. First, a staff, symbolizing his dominion and rule over his own mind and his own life. Think of the staff more like a scepter- a symbol of rulership, such as a king or monarch would hold. The second is a lantern. The job of the lantern is to illuminate- to show things hidden, in this case aspects of the mind and of the self that the Hermit might have been unaware of- bringing the unconscious to the conscious mind, revealing things not only about the Hermit himself, but about the world around him. The Hermit appears to be outfitted for some walking, so the lantern will also illuminate the path he's walking on, and the staff will support him on his way. Being a Major Arcana card, the Hermit refers more to this process of discovery rather than a specific person who is doing the discovering. It's a call to enlightenment, if that doesn't sound too New Age-y. When this card appears in a reading, it points to a need to examine yourself, and the opportunity to fearlessly examine one's own life- bring things to light that in some cases we'd rather forget. But when you do this, use it as an opportunity not to beat yourself up for shortcomings or failings, but rather to use your mind like that proverbial mirror- reflect, and  from reflection, learn and develop.
But on to the Oxherding Pictures. There are ten, and we can examine them one at a time, to see how they parallel the Hermit's journey.

The first picture is titled Searching for The Ox. Our subject has never seen an ox, but knows of its existence. Here the ox symbolizes the mind, or more specifically, understanding of the mind. This person goes everywhere, looks everywhere, but can't find the ox. It's like running to find your legs, or looking everywhere to find your eyes. It's there, and is not so much a process of  finding it as it is coming back to it. It's said that we're all born with this awareness, but need to come back to it, to remember how to do it rather than discover it anew. So we are already enlightened- we already know what we need to know- we just need to rediscover how to find out what we already have known all along.

The second picture is called Discovering The Footprints, and here we get a clue about the nature of mind. Instead of starting from square one, we have some ideas, perhaps have read and studied, and now begin to at least grasp what we're looking for. We begin to understand the nature of mind, yet still have that "monkey mind". A part of the Hermit's journey is that it doesn't happen overnight- we don't suddenly wake up one morning and everything makes perfect sense. There was a long debate between two schools of Zen, one in the north of China, the other in the south. The northern school argued that this state of awareness was gradual, while the other, southern school, argued that awareness happened all at once, an event called satori- suddenly everything falls into place, and you grasp what Buddha was talking about, and achieve the same state of awareness Buddha had under the bodhi tree when he became enlightened. Many modern Buddhists believe it's a little of both- you study and practice, gradually increasing your understanding, and then, you all of a sudden might get a flash of insight- a brainstorm, so to speak. This is reflected in the Hermit's journey- the whole reason the figure of the Hermit is on this journey, instead of just chilling in his cave, is because to grow and gain understanding requires work, mental or otherwise. 

The third picture is titled Perceiving The Ox, and here our subject is a lot closer to understanding- instead of just following footprints and traces, he actually sees the ox. There's still a good deal of work to do, but the objective is at last in sight. It seems the Hermit's study and work are paying off. You might wonder at this point, why does the Hermit need to be alone on this journey? Well, because he wouldn't be much of a Hermit otherwise. But seriously, both the Hermit and the Oxherding Pictures represent a process of self-examination and discovery- ultimately, we ourselves are the beginning and end- the one person who can truly understand one's own mind is that person. As the Hermit goes along, he learns more and more, and discovers more about himself, and has come closer and closer to that state of reflectiveness- of putting aside judgments of good and bad, and coming to a state of simple awareness of the world around him. This also would be the 'satori' event, where perhaps a sudden flash of insight brings everything together.

At this point, the subject has caught the ox, and this fourth picture is called Catching The Ox. The reason this person is after an ox, and not a monkey is because oxen are stubborn and powerful, much like the mental habits we ourselves can get stuck in. If you train an ox long enough, eventually it will learn what you want it to, but you have to get past its own stubbornness and resistance to change first- much like our own minds. At this point, the ox has been caught, but it's not too thrilled about that fact- it is resistant, and will do everything it can to get away and fight. At this point, the Hermit wrestles with his own mind- he knows the state he wants to achieve, but it seems every other minute his thoughts wander, his old habits keep cropping up to distract him- the monkey of his mind is intractable, and won't settle down and pay attention. But nonetheless, at this point, a good deal has already been accomplished, and our Hermit is a lot closer to the understanding he's been hunting for all this time than he was before he set out.

Next, the Hermit works on taming the ox, and this picture is titled Taming the Ox. Through patience and work, the Hermit learns to control his mind, and gradually the old habits are replaced with new ones. At this point, the Hermit remembers his first glance of  the ox, and works to understand that state- work with the ox, don't fight against it. The Hermit knows he's not stronger than the ox, but working with the ox can allow him to make use of its strength.

Next, the Hermit, our subject, has learned to work with the ox. This picture is titled Riding The Ox Home. Whereas at first he met resistance with resistance, he can now work with the ox- he can make use of his mind, as a boat makes use of the current to travel. There is still a distinction between the Hermit and his mind- he views it as something separate, and maintains a sense of ego- "I" as opposed to "mind", or the world around him, yet he now knows how to make use of the world around him, and to make use of his own understanding and wisdom that his efforts have produced.

The next picture is called The Ox Transcended, and here there's a noticeable absence of ox. Where did it go? The Hermit has learned that he is not separate from his thoughts, or from his mind. He sees a distinction between himself and the world, but has 'internalized' his mind- it is at his command, and does whatever he wants it to, much like our hands are at our command, doing what we tell them to do. The Hermit has gone from first off, starting out on his path, to coming to a state of understanding, working with that understanding, and finally coming to a state of awareness of what his mind really is- no longer thinking of it as something to fight against, some entity separate from himself. Rather, he understands it as only himself- you can't take away the Hermit and still have mind; nor can you take away mind and still have the Hermit, any more than you can take away the words and still have the thoughts they express. 

The eighth picture is called Both Ox and Self Transcended, and reflects the state of pure awareness the Hermit has been striving for. There no longer is a sense of "I", as interestingly I is defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. A common definition of self is not the world- that which perceives rather than that which is perceived. Okay, but really, you can't have one without the other. There is nothing that you can point to and say "self". This is an interesting revelation the Hermit has along his journey. He is both more and less than the sum of his parts.His thoughts, mind, are not in his physical body, but they have nowhere to exist if not in his mind. They are not in the world, yet the world gives them a point of reference and understanding. The Hermit comes to terms with this paradox, and ultimately winds up in the next picture- 
This one is titled Returning to the Source- the Hermit has journeyed very far, and had lots of revelations and insight along his journey. He realizes at this point, sometimes the journey ends where it begins. The world, his thoughts, and everything else are still the same. Nothing changed- except one thing. The Hermit's understanding has deepened, and he now understands the nature of the world, and of himself in it. Now, one might argue, what was the point of all that, when the answers were there all along? The fact is, without the steps in between, the Hermit would never have come to the realizations that he did. It's not the journey, but rather the fact that the Hermit studied, made the effort, and overcame all the obstacles to come to this place that matter most. Without these steps in between, the Hermit would never have been able to gain the insight and understanding that he did. And this is the essence of the Hermit's message- discovery and learning don't come free. You can read a book, (or this blog, for that matter) but understanding it requires mental effort. I can't simply transplant my own thoughts into your head. (So no need to wear tinfoil hats, ha ha) The words and language used here are a good means to communicate ideas, but ultimately it's your own understanding and your own mind that causes ideas to make sense.

The final picture is called In The World. The Hermit doesn't stay the Hermit forever. A part of the journey he takes is going back to the world, coming down from his mountain, or coming out of his cave. He can apply his wisdom, insight and learning to teaching others. He can't go catch their particular ox for them, but he can tell them how he did it- what worked, and what didn't. The figure here is actually Hotei, a Chinese figure often attributed to Buddhism, though his roots predate the introduction of Buddhism into China. He has a bag on his back (actually the word Hotei means "cloth bag") which never empties, and he uses it to provide for anyone in need- food, clothes, whatever. Hotei is like the returned Hermit in that he uses his wisdom and resources (his bag, symbolically) to help other people. He's been there, done that, and come back, and now uses that wisdom to help others. The Hermit is on a journey- we ourselves, in our time on this earth, are likewise on a journey. Like that long and exhausting pursuit of the ox, our objectives are not always in sight, and sometimes it seems like we'll never get anywhere. Some of us have returned Hermits in our own lives, or perhaps may even be one ourselves. So the message of this card is that we're not the first person to travel this road, but it's the first time we ourselves have been down this road. Both a message of growth and consultation, we discover that though others can help show us the way, it's up to us to take that all-important first step.

special thank you to for the pictures on this entry.

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