What does this picture represent?
The unkempt boy in this painting is trying to control a large ox by stepping on its neck. Seizing the beast’s horn, he presses the outstretched neck down with his right foot. His right hand, also pressed against the neck, holds a rope tied to the animal’s nose. Minimal indications of a sloping ground plane and tree branches suggest a rustic landscape setting.
Why is this subject considered a Zen theme? Why would it have appealed to samurai?
Zen is a form of Buddhism, imported to Japan from China in the twelfth century. Zen emphasizes meditation (zazen) and pondering of paradoxical statements or questions (koan) as practices leading to enlightenment. In Zen, the metaphor of a wild, rampaging ox is used to denote the unenlightened mind, which practitioners seek to tame and control through disciplines like meditation. Thus, paintings like this one were used to represent the metaphor of “taming the mind.” Specifically, the theme comes from a set of Chinese verses known as the “Ten Oxherding Songs,” which illustrate the stages toward enlightenment. This picture relates to the fourth stage, catching the ox: “With the energy of his whole being the boy has at last taken hold of the ox. But how wild his will, how ungovernable his power!”1 Many members of the samurai class practiced Zen Buddhism. The instantaneous nature of Zen enlightenment appealed to warriors, as did the discipline required by its practices.
Who was the artist? Where did he work?
The painting bears an artist’s red seal in the lower left corner, reading Sekkyakushi. An assumed name meaning “Red-legged Child,” the name is thought to refer to a monk-painter active at the Tofukuji temple in Kyoto. Tofukuji was one of several Kyoto monasteries where the practice of ink painting flourished during the Muromachi period (1333–1573), and continues to this day. Zen monks practiced the art of ink painting as a spiritual exercise, as well as to provide images for contemplation. The figural themes they painted included both portraits of earlier Zen patriarchs and themes like this one, rooted in Chinese literary tradition but with subtle religious connotations.
- If an ox represents an unruly mind, what other animals might represent other states of mind like happiness, sadness, confusion, anger, resolve, etc? Discuss the qualities these animals have that relate them to the state they might represent.
- What occasions might this scroll be appropriate for? There are no wrong answers to this question; students may make up their own associations here. What about the Daruma painting?
1 D.T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism (NY: Grove Press, 1960), 131.