Another set of murals that are commonly found at Korean Buddhist temples are the Shimu-do, or “The Ten Ox-Herding Murals,” in English. These paintings are typically found around the exterior walls to the Daeung-jeon Hall, but they can also be found adorning the exterior walls of other shrine halls at a temple. Also, they can be found individually adorning a temple shrine hall, or they can be joined by the Palsang-do (Eight Scenes from the Life of the Buddha Murals).
Either way, and on whatever building they might adorn, they are painted at seon temples both in Korea and in China. The Shimu-do first came to the Korean peninsula by way of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China. They were originally created as a visual device by Buddhist Seon masters to teach novice monks. These pictures are meant to depict a deep metaphor of the Seon practice. Because the practice of Seon Buddhism emphasizes the practice of meditation in the uncovering of innate wisdom and compassion found in the individual, these paintings represent the training of cultivation of the mind. As a result, the Shimu-do are typically found at Jogye-jong Order and Taego-jong Order temples in Korea.
In total, there are ten murals in the Shimu-do set. They are:
1. Searching for the Ox
2. Seeing the Tracks
3. Seeing the Ox
4. Catching the Ox
5. Tending (or Taming) the Ox
6. Riding the Ox Back Home
7. The Ox Transcended (or Forgotten)
8. Both the Ox and the Ox-Herder are Transcended (or Forgotten)
9. Reaching the Origin
10. In the World (or Return to Society)
In these murals, the central figures are an ox-herding boy and an ox. In the murals, the ox-herder is meant to represent you, while the ox is meant to represent your mind. So with all that being said, let’s now take a closer look at each of the individual paintings. What do they look like? And what are they meant to represent?
1. Searching for the Ox:
In the first mural in the Shimu-do set, you see a young ox-herder is in the wild looking a little lost. He’s seemingly wandering around aimlessly, as though in search of something. The ox is absent in this mural. According to Seon teachings, we are all like this young ox-herder. We are all looking for inner peace and happiness, but we are subject to the demands of our passions, which leads to suffering.
2. Seeing the Tracks:
In this second mural, the young ox-herder finally sees a set of tracks. The boy, searching for the ox, finds a sign of the ox’s existence through its tracks. Here, an individual is catching a glimpse of their innate Buddhahood that dwells in each of us. With this realization, there is an awareness by the individual of something more. This awareness is of the possibility of transcending pain and suffering. This is an initial awareness and understanding of the origins of pain and suffering.
3. Seeing the Ox:
In this third mural, the ox-herder follows the tracks left behind by the ox. The ox-herder is finally able to see the half-hidden ox that appears among the trees. This mural is meant to symbolize that through hard work, both in practice and in study, one can find their own true mind (Buddhahood).
4. Catching the Ox:
The ox-herder, in the fourth mural, is seen trying hard to catch the wild ox with a rope. However, the ox doesn’t want to be caught. As a result, the ox and the ox-herder fight. The ox-herder can be seen struggling to hang on tightly to the ox, as the ox is dragging the ox-herder along on the ground. Symbolically, this mural is meant to show the struggle which takes place when one is not able to fully transcend ones passions and desires. So while an individual catches a glimpse of their true nature (Buddhahood), they have yet to completely break free from their desires and wants. This is a difficult struggle between ones passions and ones higher true nature. However, in some of these murals, you can see a gradual whitening of the ox taking place. This illustrates the gradual awakening of the individual towards their true nature (Buddhahood).
5. Tending (or Taming) the Ox:
In the fifth mural of the Shimu-do set, you’ll see that the ox-herder is now gently tending/taming the ox. Even though the struggle seems to be over, the ox-herder is still loosely holding onto the ox’s rope, while also keeping his whip ready the entire while. Symbolically what this is meant to represent is how a student must always be vigilant by staying focused and keep their mind free of distractions. And the way that this can be achieved is through practice.
6. Riding the Ox Back Home:
The sixth mural in the set shows the ox-herder sitting leisurely atop the ox, as he make his way back home. What this mural symbolizes is the ox-herder no longer being bound by the world of illusions. The ox-herder’s mind is no longer deceived. Instead, the ox-herder is now in control of their mind. So with this control, he is now returning “home” to his true nature (Buddhahood).
7. The Ox Transcended (or Forgotten):
In this mural, the seventh in the Shimu-do set, the ox has now disappeared. All that is left now is the ox-herder. The ox-herder is left all alone and is now resting at home. Sitting all alone, the ox-herder forgets about the ox. The ox-herder is at peace. By forgetting the ox, the ox-herder has transcended the “self.” There is no longer an ego or even a notion of the self to delude the mind. There is only stillness.
8. Both the Ox and the Ox-Herder are Transcended (or Forgotten):
In the eighth mural in the set, both the ox and the ox-herder are forgotten. All that remains is an empty circle. This empty circle represents the emptiness attained by forgetting both the ox and the self. It’s at this point that one realizes that everything comes from emptiness. With that being said, it should be noted that this emptiness is NOT nothingness. Instead, this emptiness is the possibility of endless change. And it’s through this change that the ox-herder has achieved the ultimate stage of enlightenment.
9. Reaching the Origin:
In this painting, there is no ox, nor is there an ox-herder; instead, there is only a beautiful scene from nature. This picture is meant to symbolize the original clear mind (Buddhahood). And it’s with this mind that we see things as they actually are. Mountains are mountains. Oceans are oceans. At this stage, everything expresses the actual truth of life.
It should be noted that both the ninth and tenth painting weren’t originally a part of the Shimu-do set. Instead, the original set formerly ended at the eighth mural. However, in an effort to help eliminate any misunderstanding, the series was expanded to ten. The reason for the confusion is that there was a misunderstanding about Buddhism’s idea of enlightenment and the aforementioned idea of emptiness.
10. In the World (or Return to Society):
In the tenth mural, which like the ninth wasn’t originally included, we see the ox-herder turning to a village (the world). The ox-herder is doing this after years of solitary practice. The ox-herder returns to the world to teach what he has come to learn. Thus, the picture is the culmination of the set of ten. It depicts the very core of Buddhist teachings: freedom, wisdom, and compassion.
The Shimu-do, or “The Ten Ox-Herding Murals,” in English, are a beautiful aid to help deepen our understand Seon teachings. As Seon Buddhism teaches, our lives are filled with suffering; however, through wisdom, we can gain a better understanding of emptiness. And through this understanding of emptiness, we can learn to see things as they actually are, which is an endless possibility of change.