Silent Present Moment Zen

Silent Present Moment Zen


Step 3 – First Glimpse of the Ox

The Eighth Dharma Realm

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore – Here no Ox can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

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First Glimpse of the Ox

Silent Present Moment Awareness

The third step on the path is depicted in the ox-herding pictures with the seeker seeing the rear end and tail of the ox as it goes around a corner, i.e., not seeing its head. That’s what the old masters meant by calling this stage the First Glimpse of the Ox. The central practice of this realm is shikantaza, Silent Present Moment Awareness. It provides the antidote to the greed that causes re-birth in this realm. Millions of people practice shikantaza, which is Japanese for just sitting. The world of Zen has two primary schools, that of shikantaza and that of koans. When we conclude our loving kindness meditation, we maintain our Present Moment Awareness and transition to Silent Present Moment Awareness. This is how we leave the dharma realm of animals. After we have sent out boundless loving kindness to all sentient beings in all universes, we simply let that be our last thought. We are finished with thinking and now we are going to let the silence in. When true silence is attained, we will have our first glimpse of the ox. Venerable Ajahn Brahm counsels us to make the transition from Present Moment Awareness to Silent Present Moment Awareness by dropping our internal dialog. Instead of thinking: “I’m beginning to really enjoy this morning meditation practice,” or “Now I’m doing my Loving Kindness meditation,” or “That’s enough lovingkindness, I’m going to do my Silent Present Moment Awareness practice now,” we just conclude our metta meditation and sit without inner commentary. When a bird chirps, we no longer think: “That was a bird.” We let everything pass without commentary. We exist in the present moment without discursive thought. We drop our thoughts and give our mind a vacation from everything. We let the five senses and the mind just go away into the nothingness, the void from which they came. Thus by letting go of everything we transition from Present Moment Awareness to Loving Kindness to Silent Present Moment Awareness. We sit in Silent Present Moment Awareness as long as we can. But how do we actually let go of thought itself? We follow the above instructions of Venerable Ajahn Brahm and the instructions of our Sensei/Roshi, if we have one. If we have no teacher, we can use an amazing technique commented upon in The Spectrum of Consciousness by Ken Wilbur. The technique was introduced by H. Benoit in The Supreme Doctrine which is the only book I’ve never been able to find on Amazon. We say to ourself: “Speak! I am listening!” Our happiness will increase each day and our ill will/dislikes will diminish, as will our greed, as we sit in Silent Present Moment Awareness, waiting for our true self to speak. We may even catch a first glimpse of the ox. Thoughts stop when we command our self to Speak! We objectify our self in the same way we objectify everything else that we perceive. Thus, when we wait for something to speak, nothing does because the self is waiting for something else to speak. And the objectified self is the only self we have. It is our own mental creation and nothing is really there. This may seem quite spooky, but it explains what the Buddha meant when he said in The Diamond Sutra that no one has ever been born and no one has ever passed away. Physical bodies come and go, of course, but the birth of a body is not the birth of a Self and the demise of a body cannot therefor be the end of a Self that never was in the first place. This topic is a bit much for Beginning Zen so this famous teaching of the Buddha is continued here. Enlightenment, called kensho in Japanese, can be shallow or deep. Here is how one person expressed his experience: “All at once everything became sheer brilliance, and I saw and knew that I am the only One in the whole universe! Yes, I am that only one.” And another person: ‘All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a dazzling stream of illumination and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight…For a fleeting eternity I was alone–I alone was…Then the roshi swam into view. Our eyes met and flowed into each other, and we burst out laughing…” Both of these accounts appear in The Three Pillars Of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau.

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Roshi Philip Kapleau, Founder of the Rochester Zen Center


These two meditators had caught their first glimpse of the Ox. And these two meditators had arrived at perhaps the most critical part of the path. The Masters, in the traditional explanation of the ten pictures, tell us that when we catch the first glimpse of the Ox, the experience is so overwhelming that the meditator announces he or she is at one with the Universe and has attained a degree of enlightenment that may very well surpass that of the Buddha. A few of them will even announce that they are now qualified to teach because no one has ever become as enlightened as they have become. Venerable Ajahn Brahm makes the interesting observation that those who experience the rapture of the first jhana and the serene happiness of the second jhana usually stop their spiritual evolution at that point. They insist they have seen God or Jesus or whatever or if they are Buddhist they will declare themselves to be enlightened. These are the people who start religions, not realizing that the First Glimpse of the Ox, other worldly as it may be, is merely the third stage of ten. However, the First Glimpse of the Ox may fall far short of the first and second jhanas. So if we persist in practice and get our first glimpse of the ox, it is time to go deeper. The good news is that no further effort is required after the ox has been glimpsed for the first time. Our striving is over because our resistance to practice is over. We want to and will practice Buddhism in all its fullness every day. We are the happy ones. “This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land and this very body the body of Buddha.” (The concluding line of Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen, which we will encounter in Advanced Zen). With the passage of time, the bliss wears off and we realize that we have merely glimpsed the Ox for the first time. That is why the Ox-herding pictures were painted in the first place – to let people know that the overwhelming, mind-exploding experience of catching the first glimpse is merely the beginning!

Ise Shrine Grounds of Buddhist Temple

Ise Shrine, Japan

(It’s Shinto, not Buddhist, but it’s pretty)

When the Ox has been glimpsed for the first time, the meditator may have briefly experienced the first and second jhanas. The six senses (the usual five, plus the mind), have shut down, at least for a moment. A person in the first or second jhana never thinks: “This is blissful but my knees are hurting…” We have risen to the eighth dharma realm, the dharma realm of animals, the dharma realm of greed, and we transcend it by practicing generosity, gratitude, and Silent Present Moment Awareness. Our Loving Kindness/metta meditation is performed in the present moment. That’s why we practice Present Moment Awareness before practicing metta. We don’t abandon our Present Moment Awareness meditation as we transition into metta nor do we abandon it as we transition into Silent Present Moment Awareness. We conclude our Silent Present Moment Awareness meditation by reciting the repentance gatha (verse): All evil actions committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger, and ignorance, arising from body, speech and mind, I now repent having committed. Repentance means little without renunciation. Nazi SS members confessed their mass murders once a week throughout the Holocaust, only to repeat the transgressions the following week. The priests who granted weekly absolution were criticized for doing so but such criticism came too late. The Repentance Gatha is therefore followed by a vow to renounce “all evil actions” so that the repentance has meaning. We can renounce ill will, greed, animal cruelty/meat-eating, drinking, desires for wealth and fame, etc., and any other activity that conflicts with the precepts. A monk or nun who leaves home to enter a Buddhist order must renounce family ties and all other worldly ties. Such renunciation, I think, should take place before marriage and children. The Buddha was married and had a child when he renounced all worldly interests but he lived in a different time. His wife and child were wealthy and even had servants. He also returned to them upon attaining enlightenment and both of them attained liberation. This course is for those of us who have no intention to abandon our families and to enter into a Buddhist order as monks or nuns. We lay people can never renounce all worldly things to the same degree as does one who takes the vows of a renunciate for life. But it is good to associate with such people from time to time and to understand deep renunciation. Dharma Master Hsuan Hua teaches us to climb out of the third lowest dharma realm, the dharma realm of animals, by overcoming greed. He says that humans fall from the human dharma realm into the animal dharma realm because of greed, i.e., the karmic result of a human life lived with greed is re-birth, as he says, in fur and horns. So we repeat the Repentance Gatha at the end of our morning meditation, and several times throughout the day, and vow to reduce our greed. How we practice greed reduction is up to us. The Repentance Gatha also mentions anger (a form of hatred/ill will; it arises due to things we don’t like) and ignorance. Recitation of the Repentance Gatha reinforces the work we are doing in the first two steps as well and is thus a nice way to wrap up our practice of Present Moment Awareness, Loving Kindness/metta, and Silent Present Moment Awareness. We may practice greed reduction by eating just a little less at each meal. Fasting is not a Zen practice so we don’t starve ourselves. But we do think about leaving the dharma realm of animals by teaching ourselves to overcome greed by eating less, by learning to stop before we are stuffed. If we want to live a lifestyle closer to the lifestyle of a Theravada monk, we can eat one veggie meal per day, before noon. They drink tea in the afternoon and evening. We cultivate the idea of living a less greedy lifestyle. Our wisdom increases as we understand that the cultivation of generosity can lift us from the animal realm. Giving, i.e., generosity, the antidote to greed, is the first of the six perfections. So in the first three practices of our morning routine we have climbed from the three evil realms and practiced three of The Six Perfections (generosity, patience, and vigor). As our happiness/mindfulness/loving kindness increases and our ignorance diminishes day by day with continued practice of these first three steps, we gradually climb out of the evil dharma realms. But practice without precepts is meaningless, so we also study and follow the precepts. They are introduced in the fifth step of this program, which is the second step of Intermediate Zen. Silent Present Moment Awareness is the most important meditation practice in all of Buddhism. It is the foundation of all meditation because we establish mindfulness, the first of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, when we practice Silent Present Moment Awareness. Without it, the sixteen step meditation taught by the Buddha is ineffective. And we can’t practice Silent Present Moment Awareness without first practicing Present Moment Awareness. Of The Five Hindrances to meditation, sense desire is the strongest. When we practice Silent Present Moment Awareness, we overcome, at least temporarily, the most difficult of the hindrances. A practice that establishes mindfulness and overcomes the most powerful of the five hindrances is an indispensable practice. Sense desire is also the first hindrance of The Five Hindrances and the fourth fetter of The Ten Fetters. So we have the practice of Silent Present Moment Awareness, also known as shikantaza, to help us cultivate generosity. We can read the late Roshi John Daido Loori’s The Art Of Just Sitting for more information about shikantaza. Donations to the Tzu Chi organization are an ideal way to practice generosity in a concrete, non-abstract way. Similar to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army but founded on Buddhist (not military) principles (your money will not be spent on meals for the needy that include the bodies of slaughtered animals), Tzu Chi (Compassionate Relief) is an international relief organization with nominal overhead.

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Master Cheng Yen, founder of Tzu Chi

We can contact Tzu Chi and ask for one of their donation-collecting containers. It is a cylindrical container, pictured below, that serves as a piggy bank. Master Cheng Yen asks that donors place a small amount in coins in the container each day. The containers are emptied each year into a collection vessel during the annual Chinese New Year celebration in Tzu Chi centers which are all over the world. Tzu Chi cylinder 053 If you live far from any Tzu Chi center, you can support their work in the usual way. We may elect to counter our greed by giving money directly to a homeless person. Or by buying them some food or helping them find a job. Or by sending money to a monk or nun. (They do not accept money directly or personally; it must be sent to their monastery or other practice location for the benefit of the practice center in general). For more about Tzu Chi, see But for day-to-day practice of generosity, it’s hard to beat the Tzu Chi way. Perhaps its only drawback is that it encourages such a small amount of generosity each day. But that may be its strongest point!

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