Image 7: The Bull Transcended

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Mark DeWolfe, in our opening hymn (SLT #295), tells us to “Sing out praises for the journey.” He says we are pilgrims traveling a wild road in search of our soul’s yearning. What is your soul’s yearning? What calls you into the journey? I don’t just mean wanderlust here. I mean that deeper journey we each take in becoming who we are.

The opening line of Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey http://www.phys.unm.edu/~tw/fas/yits/archive/oliver_thejourney.html says: “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began.” Was it like that for you? Maybe you were 24 or 54, or simply 4 – and one day, you just knew. And you began. Maybe it happened when you were in that particular class back in school, or when you were hit by that particular loss of a loved one, or when you left that job or moved across the country, or when you hit your ‘rock bottom,’ realizing something different needed to happen. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began.”

Can you name a turning point? An inception of the journey? A launch date? I can’t. I am sure for some of you this concept connects, maybe connects strongly. But it doesn’t work for me. And trust me, I’ve tried to make it work because I’m a minister and I have a calling and a ‘call story’ is supposed to have a beginning – a Damascus moment where I’m struck from my horse like Paul as described in the book of Acts. But I have no such moment. I never have.

I most certainly have been on the journey, but I cannot describe a single starting point for it all. I have no “One day” in which I finally knew. I had been walking the path for a while before I realized what I was doing.

I recently saw a friend post about the word “Coddiwomple.” It is an Old English word meaning: “To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.” Coddiwomple. I feel like I was doing something along those lines. I coddiwompled my way into ministry. “One day I finally recognized what I had been aiming at, and that I had begun some time back.” I have said before that I do not feel like I’d gotten a “call” so much as a series of whispers into ministry.

It is like I can look back and recognize several versions of Image 2 of the Ten Bulls – the one where the person ‘sees signs of the ox’ – but I didn’t understand them as signs at the time. And, perhaps because of that, I can’t recall that moment of Image 1 in which the person begins the search for the ox. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls But for you, it may be different.

The Ox herding pictures are meant to be about the journey of meditation into enlightenment. I am trying to expand from that more broadly, using them to talk about any journey of self-discovery. There are many forms out there of the journey of self-discovery. They are all variations of a road map for the journey of becoming who you are.

Essentially, the forms offer a template for our own experiences. Real life is messier than any story crafted to explain or entertain. You know: the map is not the territory, it is merely a representation of what it might be like. Useful, but not actual. I’ve mentioned my own experience to highlight this point. You also may find Mary Oliver’s poem personally meaningful like I do even though it doesn’t fit your actual experience, like it does not fit mine – at least the first part. Most of the rest of the poem is spot on for me.

Oliver talks about these voices crying out for our attention, old hurts, old patterns, old stories about who I am and what I can be. That part still fits my experience. My journey has always been a movement away from those negative voices. It has always been a movement into wilderness. And that’s in keeping with Mary Oliver’s poem.

In our prelude piece from James Taylor (Carolina On My Mind) there is a good description of the wild road:

Dark and silent, late last night,

I think I might have heard the highway call.

He mentions “signs that might be omens” saying it is time to be on the journey. There is an ominous feel to that verse. It is comfortable back home, but the road calls to us. Mark DeWolf, in that hymn, offers that there are wayside stopping points for us built by our ancestors who “know wild roads.” And Mary Oliver cautions us, saying:

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

What sort of trouble have you lived through? What are the wild roads you have travelled? Lucille Clifton, a poet and educator from Buffalo, NY once wrote: “Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Everybody is going through something. But that suffering is not the whole story, not when you are on the journey.

I was talking with someone this week about some hard things this person was going through. And they also talked about doing the thing they love – and how when they are absorbed in that work the worry and the suffering fades to the background. Musicians and athletes talk about this sort of experience a lot. It is what that 6th image must feel like – riding the ox home, playing your flute, in control of the situation and finding joy in the process.

Mary Oliver says it like this:

But little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

At the top of this sermon I named it “Becoming who you are.” It is about finding your voice, your calling, your passion or purpose – yes. But at the heart of it, we’re talking about finding your voice and becoming who you are. You are nor defined by who your family was – for good or for ill. You and I are not defined by the negative voices in our heads. We are not defined by our mistakes. You are not defined by your past. Yes, all that stuff is a part of you, probably has consequences you’ll need to deal with; but your voice – your voice is who you are. This shows in both the Mary Oliver poem and the ox-herding pictures. What I search for, what you search for is your true self, your voice, perhaps even enlightenment.

The western storytelling would probably end at the triumphant image 6 in the Ox-Herding pictures. The person went searching, saw signs, spotted the ox, caught and then tamed the ox. And finally, in image 6 we see the person riding the ox home. But the set of pictures are not showing us the “call to adventure.” They show us how we can become who we truly are. That’s why it doesn’t end with image 6.

Image 7 shows the story as it continues. Once the goal is obtained, life continues. To take this more solidly in the direction of spirit and a quest for deeper understanding – image 7 shows success to be not the pinnacle, but another step toward something more. Image 7 is a return to the beginning.  And even that is not the end.

Mary Oliver ends her poem saying you find yourself:

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life that you could save.

The Ox-Herding pictures are, likewise, focused on your enlightenment – your personal journey to get it all figured out. But notice the last image, image 10. The figure has returned to the world as a bodhisattva, a Buddha-figure, present and open to the world in need. This enlightenment business, this salvation business, so focused on the individual and on my private experience of healing and wholeness … yet here at the end of the Ox-herding pictures, we see the figure arriving back in the world to care for the brokenness, to offer the path to others.


In the end, we’re all in this together, no matter what we do in our private spiritual lives. As Pat Humphries reminds us (From our Anthem Swimming to the Other Side):

We are swimming in this stream together

Some in power, some in pain

Even for me, a minister, I am on my own journey. My voice, who I am becoming, is all tangled up with these topics of enlightenment and salvation. But I can’t save anyone. I am not up here to make you a better person or to make you happy or to bring you to enlightenment. I can open some doors, point things out, highlight a path or two that might help – but you need to uncover your own voice and walk your own path, search for your own ox and ride it home. We all are on our own journeys. And yet – we are swimming in this stream together … it makes sense for us to help each other along the way, right?

I want to figure out my own stuff, but I don’t want that to stop me from figuring out ways to help others along the way. And that is what the final image is about in the 10 ox-herding pictures. Returning to the broken world. Because the broken world needs our attention too.

And as I said earlier, real life is messy. Life does not follow the ordered progression of a story, a poem, or an elegant set of ten pictures. Image 10 may be closer to your current starting point leading into the journey. I don’t know. You may be living this in a different order than I have been living it.

I want to figure out my own stuff, but I don’t want that to stop me from figuring out ways to help others along the way. You may be spending your time helping others, hoping to eventually figure your own stuff out along the way. Your voice, your path – that’s the journey.

Meanwhile, we are all one human family, together on our beautiful earth/home. We are here to make life better, kinder – to build our share of “roadside hostels” on the wild roads of the spirit for the next traveler on the journey behind us.

May we have courage in the wild night of our searching. May we have compassion for all our fellow travelers. And may any insights, epiphanies, understandings, or ox taming moments that come out way – lead us back into the world with blessings in our hands.

In a world without end

May it be so.