Book Review: The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd

Dylan Pahman
By | March 28, 2014

Book Information: Addison Hodges Hart, The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha’s Path (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), vii + 118 pages.

Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and university chaplain, offers in The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd a wonderful exercise in comparative religion, examining the common ground that can be found in spiritual practice between Christianity and Buddhism. Hart focuses on the ten ox-herding icons of Zen, originating in China by the master Kakuan and accompanied by his verse and prose commentary. Hart, then, adds his own Christian perspective on the spiritual journey depicted and described by Kakuan, highlighting in the end his emphasis that outer acts of compassion require a prior, inner transformation.

Hart seems sensitive to the objection that such an exercise might be syncretistic, grounding his exploration in the Christian doctrine of the Logos:

An old, frequently forgotten Christian principle has been that we should not fear to bring the riches of perennial wisdom into the church. Thoughtful Christians have always recognized that the logos—meaning “word,” “reason,” and “message”—was revealed before Jesus embodied it in himself. It was synonymous with the common universal wisdom traceable throughout the history of the race and present in every human culture.

This calls to mind the words of St. Justin Martyr, “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us.” If the fathers freely, though not uncritically, incorporated and baptized concepts found in Greek philosophy, why not Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism today?

If that was all Hart had said, I would be on the same page. What was disappointing to me (though this is only a minor criticism given how little it comes up) is that Hart does not treat those who would disagree with him charitably. With regards to these two great religious traditions, he writes, “Only the most anti-religious bigot would hesitate to call what they have in common ‘truth.'” Really? “Only” bigotry can explain a hesitancy in this regard?

Later on, he poisons the well again with his understanding of fundamentalism, under which he includes “both crude (e.g., literalist biblicism) and sophisticated (e.g., medieval and reformed versions of scholasticism)” varieties. That is a wide range of Christian perspectives, none of which, historically, have universally been guilty of “flatten[ing] spirituality to rote definitions and abstractions.” One might call to mind stories of Thomas Aquinas levitating in spiritual contemplation or, for that matter, the whole Pentecostal tradition of Protestant fundamentalism with its emphasis on an experienced, second and spiritual baptism.

Couldn’t these other perspectives, rather, be the necessary exclusivist yin to Hart’s universalist yang? True, the doctrine of the Logos emphasizes the universality of truth throughout times and cultures, but the doctrine of the Church and its sacraments are decidedly exclusive. The same Jesus who is the Logos incarnate also warned, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53)—surely those wary of looking outside of the Church for insight into their faith may have fair claim to reasonable justification rather than necessarily being motivated by bigotry, prejudice, and fear.

That said, The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd really is a wonderful little book. Hart’s analysis is not superficial; he clearly has taken the time to move beyond a surface-level understanding of both the Christian patristic tradition and relevant Zen and other Buddhist and Taoist sources. He gives a wonderful introduction to the ten ox-herding icons for interested Christians in a way that also might help to familiarize Christians with similar spiritual sources in their own tradition, such as Evagrios, St. John Cassian, St. Augustine, and St. Hesychios the Priest, among others, including more recent writers, such as Thomas Merton.

In order to give a brief look at some of the gems Hart has to offer—and because it is much simpler than trying to summarize them myself—I’ll pair some of his insights with each of the ten ox-herding pictures below:

1. Seeking the Ox

[I]f there is a “fall” narrative in these Ten Pictures, it’s to be found here. There is no story of a primordial loss of Eden, of course; but, if we’re able to see it, this first picture is a suggestion of the loss each of us has sustained. It’s the evocation of an existential revelation, something like the prodigal son’s “coming to his senses” in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:17). The Boy, like the prodical, is all at once shocked to find that his life is a mess. He starts out to find the Ox, but he discovers that he has lost his way—in fact, he lost it long before he even set out on the search. He lost it when he turned his back on his true nature.

2. Finding Footprints

What guides him on now, though not without some hesitancy and questioning on his part, are the footprints of the Ox—that is to say, the scriptures and teachings. Following these indications of the Ox’s passage, he continues to seek for the Ox itself.

… Scriptures and tradition, creeds and dogma and doctrines—all work like that. They are all traces leading towards reality. They aren’t the reality … They can only take us up to the gate …

3. Seeing the Ox

Already the Boy has changed from a fearful and confused to a more focused and settled state of mind. What has altered and ordered his thoughts is finding the “footprints” of the Ox … What he has learned to do as a consequence is to focus his mind and attention, to meditate, to listen, to breathe softly like a child, and to allow his senses to experience repose within his own breast. What he has discovered is deep calm in himself, and this harmony within is in accord with the inner heart of living nature.

In Christian terms, the Boy is learning “repentance” (metanoia), which literally means “changing how one thinks.”

4. Catching the Ox

As Aristotle and other Greek philosophers pointed out, the reasoning mind (nous) must direct the unreasoning, desiring part of our selves away from straying (“sin”—hamartia again), and towards a higher, integrated goal—indeed, towards God, the one who is without parts or passions, the everlasting and almighty Source. It shouldn’t surprise us that Christianity, its scriptures written in Greek, used precisely these same terms, adding only that it is by “grace” (meaning a gift of God) that this internal integration of the mind is possible for us at all.

5. Taming the Ox

The ascetics of Christianity, especially those of the Eastern tradition, knew that the taming of one’s thoughts was vital to true discipleship and the following of Jesus’ way. Contemplative prayer—stillness, silence, controlled breathing, repetition of a simply biblical phrase or the name of Jesus, focusing the mind—was employed precisely to master one’s thoughts.

6. Riding Home on the Ox’s Back

Too often we think of discipline and asceticism as cheerless rigor … But the goal of spiritual discipline is not to beat up our selves, or mope about our sins, or tearfully groan about guilt. It is, rather, to find the sort of freedom and joy we see in this picture: “Riding free, I buoyantly wend my way homeward … / Singing a song, beating time, my heart is filled with indescribable joy.”

7. Ox Forgotten, Self Alone

The Boy sits serenely by his thatched-roof hut and dreams placidly. The sun is high and red in the sky, but there he sits in reverie, at home, in leisure. The whip and rope lie useless. The Ox has brought the Boy home—indeed, “only the Ox” could—and now he has vanished altogether as a separate entity. This is because, as the commentary tells us, there is “one law [dharma], not two” and just “one ray of light.” … [T]he disciple is free now to relax and merely to be. What needed to be separated has been; what needed to be joined together has been. In [Thomas] Merton’s terms, the Boy is “at home with himself”—he can “stop seeking, sit still and be what [he] has become.”

8. Both Ox and Self Transcended

“God is an infinite sphere,” it has been written, quoted, and re-quoted down the centuries, “whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.” In other words, one must either depict God as including and transcending everything (an impossibility), or else give up any attempt at adequate representation entirely. The empty circle in Picture 8 does the latter. It literally depicts nothing, but that nothing is everything and boundlessly more.

9. Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source

What the disciple in Picture 9 has discovered is that stability in the midst of impermanence is possible, and that it has always been a potential within him. Looking back over his previous confusion and chasing after the Ox, he can now say—rather startlingly—”Too many steps have been taken in vain, returning to the Origin, coming back to the Source. / Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning.”

What does he mean by this? … [H]e should have remained “blind and deaf” to all the enticements that led him from his true home.

10. Entering the Marketplace with Bliss-Bestowing Hands

[The Boy, now the jolly bodhisattva Hotei,] has passed through the rigors of discipleship under a teacher, and he knows himself well enough to have assurance. People find him approachable, relaxed, and interesting. Like Jesus, he is just fine eating with sinners—and even tax collectors! Like Jesus at the wedding of Cana, he might even provide the wine. And yet, he is there with a message of salvation and enlightenment: “I am found in the company of winebibbers and fishmongers, and they all become enlightened.” He comes “that they may have life and have it abundantly”: “Now, before me, withered trees burst into bloom.”

In a relatively short space, Hart presents a clear, if limited, description of the spiritual life from a Christian perspective, mediated through a familiarity with the Buddhist nature of the ten Zen ox-herding icons. In the end, through overcoming the passions and through communion with God, the result is to become “enlightened, mature, and the embodiment of … generous, gift-giving, self-giving, [and] bliss-bestowing” toward all others. Or, as is the focus of Via Vitae, seeking the kingdom of God produces people who also happen to benefit the common good. In this light The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd, Hart’s careful but accessible exploration of the path to that end, comes highly recommended from me.

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  • Dan Hugger

    I’ve always loved these. Thanks for the great review!