Step 4 – Catching the Ox
The Seventh Dharma Realm
I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
Mindfulness of the body
The seventh dharma realm is the dharma realm of the asuras.
The central practice of this dharma realm is cultivation of mindfulness of the body as the antidote to the aggression and struggle of the asuras.
The commentary for the ox-herding pictures says that Catching the Ox requires a great struggle because the Ox repeatedly escapes and the Zen practitioner must work hard to bring it back.
The Ox is glimpsed frequently, but it keeps getting away. When we find a teacher, he or she will tell us to return to the practice whenever we drift away from it. Glimpse the ox, lose sight of it, glimpse it again, and so on. As we practice the discipline of returning to the practice, the glimpses will come more frequently and they will last longer until they are more than mere glimpses; we will settle down and catch the ox for extended periods of time.
I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible.
Thus, the meditator struggles with the practice, but the practice gets better as time passes if the meditator practices daily.
Zen Masters say that the people who succeed in catching the Ox typically become arrogant, insisting that no higher stage of enlightenment is possible. The pictures again remind us that this is merely the fourth stage of ten.
The realm of asuras is also known as the dharma realm of the titans, the fighting gods.
Dharma Master Hsuan Hua teaches that upon rising from the third lowest dharma realm, the eighth or animal dharma realm, by cutting off ignorance, hatred and greed, we enter the human dharma realm. He places the asuras one dharma realm above the human dharma realm.
However, the famous Lotus Sutra, (The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law), places the realm of the demon gods, the asuras, above the animal realm but below the human realm. And the Theravada school includes the Asuras in one of the four evil realms. (There are a total of thirty one dharma realms described in the Pali canon).
The seventh or asura dharma realm is the realm of fighting, the realm of aggression. The ancient Buddhist texts describe the asuras as gods who have cultivated happiness, loving kindness and generosity to rise from the hell worlds (the tenth dharma realm), the world of hungry ghosts (the ninth), and the animal world (the eighth), but their constant strife prevents them from rising to the sixth dharma realm, that of humans. They are the gods of combat and strife.
Humans who love militarism and pursue combat, and those who urge others to enter into the military profession, are working hard to get into the asura dharma realm.
As Master Hsuan Hua says, in The Ten Dharma Realms Are Not Beyond A Single Thought, the asuras are laden with blessings but they lack power.
We will follow the Lotus Sutra’s and the Theravada school’s arrangement of dharma realms for convenience.
The cultivation of happiness is the antidote for the sorrow and lamentations that pave the way to the hell worlds.
The cultivation of goodwill is the antidote for the ill will that leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts.
The cultivation of generosity is the antidote for the greed that leads to the realm of animals.
The antidote for aggression and struggle is the cultivation of peace and relaxation through mindfulness of the body.
The next four steps of this course, which together form Intermediate Zen, include the sixteen steps of the Buddha’s Tranquil Wisdom meditation. He taught the meditation in four groups of four steps each so we will keep his arrangement.
He called the first four steps: “Mindfulness of the body.” We will soon see how mindfulness of the body is the cultivation of peace, relaxation, and non-struggle; the perfect ticket to get out of the realm of the asuras.
This is the meditation that the Buddha performed to attain enlightenment. He taught the meditation in The Anapanasati Sutta.
The Anapanasati Sutta is the one hundred eighteenth (118th) sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya. Anapanasati means “mindfulness of breathing” but the meditation is often referred to as Tranquil Wisdom meditation. The sutta is short but not easily understood without commentary.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi has written a clear explanation of that sutta, entitled: The Anapanasati Sutta, A Practical Guide to Mindfulness of Breathing and Tranquil Wisdom Meditation.
Another clear, but different, explanation is provided by Venerable Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. Both of these books, when read together, provide a priceless introduction to the meditation “technique” taught by the Buddha.
This hyperlink provides a brief overview of the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation showing how these two prominent teachers diverge in their teachings of this important sutta.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi’s work has the advantage of including the entire text of the sutta, and Venerable Ajahn Brahm’s work has the advantage of practical teachings that make it easier to follow the sixteen steps.
As we read and re-read both of these works, we learn more with each re-reading.
As instructed by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm, we begin Mindfulness of Breathing with Present Moment Awareness followed by Silent Present Moment Awareness.
We modify that by practicing metta/Loving Kindness meditation after Present Moment Awareness and then we flow into Silent Present Moment Awareness which natually appears as the Loving Kindness meditation is concluded.
The two steps of Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness are together the first of the sixteen steps. If they are skipped, practice of the remaining fifteen steps becomes meaningless.
The Buddha did not teach Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness as presented in Beginning Zen. Here is how the Buddha described the first of the sixteen steps:
Here a Bhikku (monastic), gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or an empty hut, sits down; having his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
The Buddha did not elaborate further because he knew his listeners knew how to establish mindfulness in front of them. We are grateful to Venerable Ajahn Brahm for showing us how to put mindfulness in front of as the first of the sixteen steps.
So let’s learn the next three steps. As we practice Mindfulness of the Body, we are asuras residing in the seventh dharma realm. We seize the ox “with a terrific struggle.”
When we learn to relax and practice these four steps in peace, we rise above the dharma realm of the fighting gods.
Step one – Breathing in and out
Venerable Ajahn Brahm says that the Buddha’s instruction to “put/establish mindfulness in front of you,” i.e., to establish mindfulness, is not the first step of Tranquil Wisdom meditation. He finds mindfulness to be an indispensable preliminary step and says the reason most people do not awake when practicing Tranquil Wisdom meditation is because they fail to establish mindfulness first.
Most scholars refer to Tranquil Wisdom meditation as having sixteen steps. Therefore, we can conclude that the first step of sixteen, not counting the preliminary step of establishing mindfulness, is “…ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.” Or we can say that when we have completed our Present Moment Awareness and our Silent Present Moment Awareness, that we have mindfully breathed in and out, thereby making the preliminary step the first of the sixteen steps.
Instead of ending Silent Present Moment Awareness (SPMA) with a recitation of the repentance gatha as we did in Beginning Zen, in Intermediate Zen we continue our SPMA practice by simply breathing mindfully in and out. Thus we don’t care if we are completing an unnumbered preliminary step or the first of sixteen steps. Either way, we have fifteen steps to go.
Step two- Awareness of long and short breaths
Next, we continue our SPMA practice by lightly watching the breath as it goes in and out.
More particularly, the Buddha said that after we perform the step of breathing mindfully in and mindfully out, we “understand” that a breath is long or short.
Here are the Buddha’s words:
Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’
Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’
This gives the mind something to watch during Silent Present Moment Awareness. This is a passive watching. We don’t take a long breath so that we can say: “I just took a long breath.” It is breathing that is doing the breathing, not us. We have to get out of the way and let it breathe. We are just passive observers, aware of long and short breaths. This is slightly more focused than simply breathing in and out mindfully; we add on a layer of awareness.
When we practice Present Moment Awareness, forgetting about the past and not thinking about the future, counting our exhalations from one to ten, we reduce the diversity of our consciousness, i.e., we become more focused on the present so our mind is less scattered.
When we practice Silent Present Moment Awareness by dropping the inner chatter, the inner dialog, and commanding our so-called self to speak up, we reduce the scope of consciousness even further, focusing even more on the present moment.
When we pay light attention to the breath, doing nothing more than watching the long and short breaths, we reduce the diversity of our consciousness even more. Now we are in a focused frame of mind, not thinking about the past or the future, not listening to inner chatter, and just watching our breath in a light, casual way that causes no strain or tension.
If tension arises, Venerable U. Vimalaramsi counsels us to relax, smile, and let it go. In his words: “Don’t resist or push, smile.” (DROPS)
Each step of the Buddha’s meditation reduces the diversity of consciousness, increasing our concentration or focus on fewer and fewer things – goodbye past, goodbye future, goodbye thoughts, and goodbye everything except the breath. (And, as we shall see, that eventually goes away as well).
We are following a natural progression from diversity of thought or scattered thought to single-pointed mindfulness. And that single-pointed mindfulness is not the end, either.
Our practice is like operating a garden hose in a spray mode. As we turn the control knob, the wide spray gradually becomes a narrow spray and further turning of the knob produces a focused, pencil-thin stream. And we know that the pencil-thin, concentrated flow has more power behind it than the diverse, widely spread spray.
Step three – Awareness of the whole body of the breath
Having casually (without tension) watched the breath, taking notice of the long and short ones, we now follow the Buddha’s instructions to reduce the diversity of consciousness even more by paying sustained attention to the breath.
This means we watch each in-breath from its beginning to its end, noticing how it arises in a crescendo and then rapidly fades away. We do the same for each out-breath. And we pay attention to the pause, calmly noticing whether it’s long or short, between the end of an out-breath and the beginning of the next in-breath. We also notice the moment that the in-breath becomes the out-breath. And we notice that the breath is cool coming in, warm as it exits.
In other words, we go from casual, relaxed observation of long or short breaths to a more focused awareness of the entire body of each in and out breath. But we remain relaxed and drop tension whenever it arises.
Here are the Buddha’s words that describe this third step:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body of breath’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body of breath.’
It is important that we dwell with patience in each of these stages before moving on. We need to sit in Present Moment Awareness a while before we can cut off the inner chatter and we need to sit in Silent Present Moment Awareness for a while before we start watching the long and short breaths. Venerable Ajahn Brahm counsels us that it is very important to maintain that practice for a long time before paying full sustained attention to each in and out breath.
These stages are not the end of the Buddha’s meditation but until they are mastered, there is no reason to learn anything further.
We are summarizing his explanations of the Buddha’s teachings as set forth in detail in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. To practice generosity and to express gratitude to this modern day Buddha, click here.
Step four – Awareness of the breath of the moment
Having practiced full sustained awareness of the breath for a long time, also known as experiencing the whole body of the breath, we now move on to the fourth stage of the mindfulness of breathing that the Buddha practiced.
However, this fourth stage, and all of the steps that follow it, is not produced by an act of will. It arises naturally as we pay sustained attention to the full body of each in and out breath.
After paying attention to the full body of each in and out breath during the third stage, the mind focuses naturally, without effort, on just the breath itself in each moment. This is a further reduction on the diversity of consciousness as explained by the venerable Ajahn Brahm.
Venerable Ajahn Brahm likens the awareness of the whole body of the breath to watching a saw as it cuts through wood, observing the full length of each stroke, the moments where the direction of travel is reversed, and so on. He likens awareness of the breath of the moment to awareness of a single tooth of the saw at a moment in time; nothing exists but that single tooth.
Now all of our consciousness is reduced to just the moment-by-moment experience of the breath. We have never experienced anything like this before.
We experience the breath in the moment without inner comment. Long forgotten is the past and future, the breaths both long and short, the entire body of the breath from beginning to end. Our world is now the breath and nothing but the breath. Our pencil-thin stream of water has become a laser beam. We are aware only of the present moment and the only thing in it is the breath of that moment.
Our focus is now so refined that we don’t even know if the breath is going in or out. We just experience the breath in the eternal now and everything else is gone.
We are aware only of the breath. Nothing else exists.
The Buddha was very subtle in reciting the fourth step:
He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquilizing the body formation’: he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquilizing the body formation.’
That seems at first glance to be far removed from watching a single tooth of a saw! But we learn from experience that the breath of the moment always follows our awareness of the whole body of breath. We then understand that tranquility is what we are experiencing. Instead of saw teeth flying back and forth, a single tooth sits there, tranquil as could be. Our breath becomes tranquil, as does our entire body. When we experience the breath of the moment, we experience tranquilizing the body formation.
When we complete our practice of these four steps, we have practiced Mindfulness of the Body which is the first foundation of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
And we have caught the ox when we experience the breath of the moment, step four. And of course step four is unattainable without the three steps that precede it.
The world of sense desire is the lowest of the three worlds, i.e., the world of sense desire is also known as the six worlds – the hell worlds, the hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans and the gods of the six worlds.
The other two worlds are the world of form, realized only through jhana practice which we encounter in step six (Riding the Ox Home) and the world of formlessness, realized only through practice of the immaterial attainments, which we encounter at step 7 (Self Alone, Ox Forgotten).
Cultivating the practice of mindfulness of the body delivers us from the asura dharma realm into the realm of humans. The terrific struggle of seizing the ox has ended.