Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Idea Waiting To Be Born: A Parable in Pictures

This is a way of seeing creativity through the Ten Oxherding Pictures of Zen Buddhism.  I'll begin with a bit of explanation. . . .

I first saw the Oxherding Pictures during a small but intense conference on the subject of generativity that was held in Kyoto's Daikaku-ji Temple, once the detached palace of the Emperor.  It was hosted by the Future Generations Alliance Foundation.  One afternoon the discussion turned to creativity, and my American colleague and I were asked if we had ever seen the Ten Pictures, and if so, what we might say about them.  Neither of us had even heard of them.

Within an hour, photocopies of the pictures, taken from a German source, were laid before us.  Several hours later, a second set appeared, accompanied this time by commentary in English.  These two sets, it turned out, were merely preludes.  At dinner the following evening, my colleague and I were each handed a set of simple wood-block prints by the artist Tomikichiro Tokuriki.  They were accompanied by two booklets.  One contained the interpretive verses of an obscure Chinese poet named Pu-ming.  The other was blank.  It called for our interpretation.

Before leaving Kyoto, I talked with one of our hosts, Master Kido Inoue, about the pictures.  I asked if it would be offensive to the Zen tradition if I were to make an interpretation by telling a story different from the tradition's.

"They are only a tool," he said through a translator.

And so I thought: if I used the pictures as a tool, even to tell a different story, I would not be dishonoring the tradition from which they came, but following in its very spirit.  I asked the translator to convey this to Master Inoue.  She did, and he thanked me.

And then I felt released.

Upon my return home, I did some reading and learned that the Ten Oxherding Pictures tell the story of Zen discipline, of the journey to enlightenment.  They're like an extended parable.  Different versions of the parable developed as it was carried from China, the place of its origin, to Japan.  One version consisted of five pictures; another, of six; still another, attributed to the twelfth-century Japanese Master Kakuan, of ten.  In some versions, the ox turns white as the story progresses.  In others, the ox remains black.

This history was interesting, but not as interesting as the experience of just looking at the pictures.  Sometimes, as the figures of the ox and oxherd sank in, I saw Tradition wandering through the woods and a Seeker trying to corral it.  Sometimes I saw Life bending at its knees and a Traveler climbing on its back.  And sometimes I saw God raising his head and a Soul losing itself in his immensity.

But mostly I saw an Idea Waiting To Be Born and the One who is destined to bring it to the world.  So this is the story I tell, in the spirit of a tradition that graciously offered a tool.


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