The Big OE
In the early 1970s I did what most young New Zealanders do and traveled to England on my first big O.E. ('Overseas Experience'), a landmark rite of passage for us colonials, the fledgling bird departing the national nest, leaving behind a lovely New Zealand summer of blue skies and bright promises and many kinds of certainties. The London sky was the first thing I noticed, a motionless bleak grey pall. It had the feeling of being a permanent fixture as though a random grey day had become frozen in time, winter in stasis, and that it would always be like this – which it was most of the time I was there. I liked it, for in some haphazard association of the mind it imparted a sense of festivity, of an endless Christmas. I was dressed incongruously on arrival in shorts and jandals, unmindful that the southern hemisphere summers of my home will always coincide with the northern winters. My suitcase contained a sleeping bag, some beaten-up volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s Four Quartets, a favored brown suede jacket and a few items of clothing – a minimalist traveler’s fare. Beyond this I remember almost nothing of my two years there – it has all fallen into the sea.
In one place where I stayed though, I do remember befriending a lanky, intellectual Dutch girl with whom I shared long, earnest conversations while rambling across the Wimbledon golf course, oblivious of the flying balls and the shouts of peeved golfers. She gave me a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism and I sat under the relentless grey sky to brood over the reflections of those who had traveled far on the inner journey before me. There in that book were ten representational sketches of the quest for liberation – called the 'oxherding pictures' – in which the seeker is attempting to tame the mind and find his true and original Buddha nature, here depicted as a wayward oxen.
The work of the 12th century Chinese Zen master Kakuan, the simple sketches and accompanying verses reeked of enlightenment and I sat under a tree in Wimbledon’s green acres, entranced and enchanted. The simple drawings began with the Zen initiate seeking the realization of oneness, the effacement of every conception of self and other.
'Desolate through forests and fearful in jungles,
he is seeking an Ox which he does not find.
Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,
in deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.'
'Innumerable footprints has he seen
in the forest and along the water's edge.
Over yonder does he see the trampled grass?'
In the progressive sequence of sketches the mind is gradually tamed and the seeker of truth begins to observe the waxing and waning of life while abiding in a state of unshakable serenity. There is nothing to strive for, neither gain nor loss. The waters are blue, the mountains are green. Alone with himself, he observes things endlessly changing.
'Whip, rope, Ox and man alike belong to Emptiness.
So vast and infinite the azure sky
that no concept of any sort can reach it.
Over a blazing fire a snowflake cannot survive.'
In the later sketches the oxen disappears – the unruly mind and the meditator have both disappeared into a great void of pure being, no 'I' or self left.
'Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red.'
'Barechested, barefooted, he comes into the market place.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom!'
When I examined the simple drawings I felt a slow soul thrill that tingled inside me for days, as though here at last was the sum of all real knowledge, something so quintessential that all further outer traveling would cease to have any point or meaning. The whole book smelt unmistakably of enlightenment – and I knew too that this moment of discovery was a remembering, a hyphen between this lifetime and all that I had discovered before. I still see the ox herding sketches in my mind and sometimes, on a quiet sea shore or by a mountain stream, revisit them to cast about for the footprints of the ox, the Buddha self, and sit awhile in a serene and grateful and smiling contemplation.