The Oxherd Series – Both Ox and Self Transcended – Modern Koans

Posted by in Buddha, Modern Koans, Oxherd Series, Writings


The Oxherd Series is a collection of 10 images and commentary on the quest for enlightenment.  Its source is the Zen tradition. What you’re reading here is a satirical, but not all together purposeless, treatment of these so called stages. Using excerpts from one of my favorite cartoons, Bob’s Burgers, I hope to bring this old story into the present.

I think it’s fair to say that this and the upcoming stage are where things get a little weird.  It might be good to recap what gone on thus far.

What is going on in the oxherd series? We’re reeling our way towards something called enlightenment.

Why are we searching?  Because we’ve gotten a little insight on our relationship with happiness that tells us we’ve been doing it wrong.

What’s different about this search? We’ve learned a few things.

  • We’ve realized that it’s not work in the traditional sense.
  • The work doesn’t have a beginning or an end
  • Enlightenment isn’t a thing, it’s an aspect of being

How do we go about this work? 

  • Maybe we’re meditating
  • Maybe we’re living life more mindfully
  • Maybe we’re looking at things a little differently.
  • Maybe we’re noticing how we react to the world
In love, listening is the source of our connection and the secret of keeping it alive. Life is no different. Click To Tweet

Cultivation is like falling in love. In most cases, love is the first time that we ever consider someone else’s point of view. Driven by something, we become attentive in order to to please our love interest.  It is the same keen attention that brings heartbreak when they are sad.  In love, listening is the source of our connection and the secret of keeping it alive.  Life is no different.

The Puzzle of Oneness

If you’ve ever read anything about the prisoner’s dilemma, you’ll be familiar with the concept of cooperation. It’s the classic exploration of why two “rational” actors often don’t act in their own best interest. The scenario goes like this:

  1. You and a colleague commit a minor misdemeanor and a felony.
  2. The police have evidence that you commit the misdemeanor.
  3. The police think you committed the felony, but don’t have evidence.
  4. They put you and your colleague in separate rooms and begin interrogating you
  5. They offer the following.  “Your friend is going to rat on you.  But if you rat first, we’ll only charge you with the misdemeanor”

If you think about it, the best scenario for both of you is to keep your mouths shut.  You’ll both do your penance for the misdemeanor and go home.

But can you possibly know what your friend is going to do?  You have to consider that they’ll take the deal, leaving you to serve the longer sentence.  This is strong motivation to rat on your partner.

This is one way to look at the puzzle of oneness.  We live our lives constantly unsure if the people in our lives will cooperate or act selfishly. Our actions are governed by both nature and nurture. We tend to trust and cooperate with family and close friends.  But we’re often willing to throw strangers under the bus. When we’re under stress, we’ll even turn on our friends.

What prevents us from acting in our own best interests? It's the perception that we are separate Click To Tweet

The prisoner’s dilemma has been run as an experiment for more than 50 years on various college campuses and other academic settings. There are several strategies have been devised using various combinations of cooperation and defection in a sequence of trials. They can be simple or elaborate, including some that recognize other strategies and respond accordingly.

Over the years our intuitions have been confirmed.  The best strategy is cooperation, albeit with a judicial use of defection as a deterrent to fend off chronic defectors. My point is, that when we act in cooperation, as if everyone was close family, everyone wins. So what is it that prevents us from acting in our own best interests?  It’s the perception that we are separate; that we are competitors in a zero sum game. There must be a winner and a loser.

Minding The Gap

This is duality. This is you and the ox as one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as simple as “everybody is the same thing”.  Like I said, it gets weird.  Weirder that a cow and a chef making out on a cloud (thanks again Bob’s Burgers for the not so subtle imagery). This dualism permeates the every nuance of our mental and physical world.  Our notions of self and others are fraught with paradoxes. The physical boundaries that we imagine are less clear than meets the eye.  Quantum entanglement has shown that interdependencies run deep in the very fabric of the universe. This is a tricky and heady time, one where we must be careful not to loose our heads or get caught up in concepts and constructs. At the foundation of it still lies being – one breath to the next.

Whip, rope, person, and Ox –
all merge in No Thing.
This heaven is so vast,
no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist
in a raging fire.
Here are the footprints of
the Ancestors.

Next: Reaching the Source

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Modern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important than their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton

Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst

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Andrew Furst

Author of two books, Poet, Meditation Teacher, Buddhist blogger, backup guitarist for his teenage boys, lucky husband and technologist
Andrew Furst
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