THE OX-HERDER AND THE GOOD SHEPHERD: Finding Christ on the Buddha's Path. By Addison Hodges Hart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. 118 pages.
One of the great questions facing people of faith concerns the possibility of finding a divine word in a faith tradition other than their own. Tertullian famously asked what Athens had to do with Jerusalem. Though a scholar of some repute, Tertullian was concerned about tainting the Christian faith with ideas gained from engaging Greek philosophy. A similar question might be asked – what does Christianity have to do with Buddhism? In other words, is it possible and even beneficial for Christians to look to Buddhism for spiritual wisdom and insight? Addison Hodges Hart’s answer is a definite yes. Since all truth is God’s truth and believing that the Christian is free to search for truth wherever it might be found, he has found words (pictures) of wisdom within the Zen Buddhist tradition.
Addison Hodges Hart is a Christian, a retired pastor, an author, and a person unafraid to follow the pathway of truth, wherever it leads. Indeed, “the Christian who dreads the discovery of any truth, no matter where it’s found and even if it overturns cherished presuppositions, or who denies that truth is everywhere and always present, fundamentally denies that God is the one ‘in [whom] we live and move and have our being,’ and that all human beings of every time and place are ‘indeed his offspring’ (Acts 17:28) (pp. 1-2). With this spirit of adventure released, Hart seeks Christ along a pathway that is laid out by a Buddhist.
The book centers on a set of ten pictures, with poems and commentary, produced by a twelfth century Chinese Zen master named Kakuan Shien. Although the originals are lost to time, copies have been passed on through the ages, with the set Hart chooses being the one brought to Japan. Kakuan isn’t the first to develop the images present in the pictures, but he extended them beyond earlier expressions from six or seven to ten. Most other presentations end with the eighth picture – a picture of nothingness, or rather a picture of the ox and self transcended. Kakuan moves beyond transcendence in interesting ways.
These pictures focus on three figures -- an ox, a boy, and a man. The Ox is described as being the true self – the interior person. The Ox is, according to this presentation, both sacred and natural and profane. It “embraces all of life.” The Ox, according to this presentation must be tracked, tamed, and ridden home. “In other words, the practitioner of Zen meditation must find out what and who he is, where his contentment lies, and his own abiding but unknown rootedness in the Origin and Source of all things” (p. 21). If the Ox is the true self, the Boy is described as the learner or disciple. Interestingly, Hart notes that while the Boy is described as a learner, there is no teacher. Thus, in a sense he is on his own as he seeks after the Ox, who appears to be lost, and yet isn’t lost. Rather the Boy has gone looking in the wrong direction. The pathway, that of meditation, will lead through several steps to a reconnection with the Self. The Man appears only in the tenth picture. He is, according to Hart, the figure of Hotei. Although often mistaken for the Laughing Buddha, he isn’t the Buddha. But rather is a figure of joy, happiness, and contentment. He is, Hart suggests sort of like Santa Claus – a bringer of gifts. Hotei is a Bodhisattva – an incarnation of the Buddha. They are three figures – the Ox, the Boy, and Hotei. They are also, according to this story, one. The Boy, in searching for the Ox (Self) discovers his Buddhahood.
As Hart contemplates the pictures, the poems, and the commentaries, he finds in them parallels to the teachings of Jesus. What we find here is a picture of authentic spirituality – a transformation of the inner being in search for what Jesus speaks of as the realm or kingdom of God. Buddhism and Christianity have commonalities and differences. It is in the commonalities, that Hart finds guidance.
The first four chapters of the book set up Hart’s exploration of the ten Ox-herder pictures (chapter five). In chapter five, Hart explores each of the ten pictures, offering his own interpretation and reflections on the spiritual message he finds in them. This section takes up about two-thirds of the book. We begin with the first picture, where the Boy seeks the Ox. In the Second Picture, the Boy discovers footprints. There is recognition of the way, but still confusion about truth and untruth. With the third picture, the Boy sees the Ox and changes course. Putting this in Christian terms, Hart suggests that the Boy is learning repentance, changing the way he thinks. With the Ox discovered, he seeks to catch the Ox. That is, he is catching hold of his own true self – a reconnection to the feeling part of one’s self. In the fifth picture, the Boy Tames the Ox – that is he learns to govern his thoughts and passions through spiritual disciplines. Turning to the sixth picture we find the Boy riding home on the Ox’s back. This is in reality a continuation of the previous step, so that we are moving toward that point of true connection to the self. In the Seventh Picture the Ox is gone – forgotten – and the Self is found alone in a posture that appears to be prayer. The Boy has returned home – he has found that place of leisure, the place where the self is fully integrated. There is at that point true peace. It is nearing the point of full union with God.
The eighth picture is essentially empty. At this point, both the Ox and Self are transcended. In many versions of this set of pictures – this is the final picture. It is the state of finding Nirvana. There is a sense of impersonalness here that’s not present in Christianity. But, at this point we have the opportunity to engage in the via negative or apophatic theology. In the course of our journey we discern our true self, but we also discern what/who God is not. Kakuan doesn’t end here. Instead he adds two pictures that speak of the next stages in the journey. In Picture Nine, entitled “Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source, we see a picture of a tree – but no Boy or Ox. It is a return to nature. If we purse apophatic theology in Picture 8, here we engage in kataphatic theology – the positive way. There are some things that we cannot say about God and the divine mysteries, but there are things we can say – that we can discern God’s presence in the material world of Nature. It is in the tenth picture that The Man (Hotei) appears. In this picture we see a large bellied, bare-chested man, carrying a large sack, a staff, and wine gourd. This Hotei appears to be a Buddha figure or a bodhisattva, an enlightened one, who comes bringing joy and abundance. If, as Hart suggests, the Ox, the Boy, and the Man are one – it seems that the Boy moves beyond transcendence to return to material reality as a bodhisattva for others, mingling in “the social world without fear or hypocrisy, but with love and empathy.” There is diversity in our pathways, but there is commonality in our community. In this we find Christ present in our midst.
Buddhism seems to be for many Christians an amenable spiritual pathway. Perhaps that is because it is less a theology and more a way of engaging self and spirit; that it fits well for many. I believe that many Christians who read this book and meditate on the ten pictures, and along the way, will find new ways of encountering the Good Shepherd. They will find their own faiths strengthened, and as a result they will find themselves more connected to God, and to their neighbor. There is no need to fear being led astray here, for the truth, if it is truth, will be discerned. It won’t be for everyone, but for many others it offers wisdom and truth that we who are Christian will benefit from. It is to be recommended.