Ma Tzu asked him one day what he was doing.
“I am tending an ox,” the disciple answered.
I have to explain to you that “I am tending an ox” does not mean exactly what it says. It is a symbolic saying in Zen.
There are ten cards in Tao, just like tarot cards. Those cards are called “tending an ox.” The ox is a symbol of your own self. Searching for the self is the meaning of those symbolic cards.
When those cards were brought from China to Japan, the last card was dropped for specific reasons: it needed tremendously great understanding for the tenth card. Those cards had been made according to Buddha’s own description.
In the first card the ox has escaped into the forest. A man, the owner, is standing, looking all around, and there is no sign of the ox.
In the second card, he finds the footprints on the earth. He follows the footprints.
In the third card, he sees the ox’s back, his tail. He is hiding behind a big tree.
In the fourth card, he sees the whole ox.
In the fifth, he catches hold of him.
In the sixth, he is fighting hard to take him back to the house.
In the seventh, he is victorious.
In the eighth, he is riding on the ox, coming back towards home.
In the ninth, the ox is in its stall, and the man is playing a song on his flute.
These nine cards were taken out of a pack of ten cards. In China originally, and in Buddha’s statement also, a tenth card is described. But it really needs guts to understand the tenth card. Even the Japanese masters thought it is better to drop it, because it is very difficult to make people understand it. Even Buddha said, “I am at the ninth card” – because the tenth is certainly difficult.
The tenth shows that the man, feeling so happy that he has found his ox, takes up a whiskey bottle and goes towards the pub.
Now that is very difficult – a buddha with a whiskey bottle going towards the pub!
But I don’t want to drop the tenth card, because it is as symbolic as the other cards. You accept the ox as yourself; you accept the search and inquiry as your meditation. Part by part you become aware of your inner reality.
The tenth is the ultimate point, when you become intoxicated with the universe. That whiskey bottle is not a whiskey bottle – just as the ox is not the ox – they are all symbols.