Before setting out on any journey, we usually consult a map or discuss the appropriate directions with someone who has travelled our intended path before. This is certainly the case when we plan the family holiday, or consider future steps for career advancement – how much more so then is it necessary for the spiritual paths we all tread? The spiritual journey is beset with false turnings, pitfalls, byways and blind alleys for the unwary. We are fortunate therefore that the world’s folk traditions and religious heritage provides us with many maps to guide us onwards surely to our goal of spiritual advancement for the human race and ourselves. These maps are usually written in the form of stories, pictures, or simple instructions which the mind can easily grasp and which will endure through life and be passed on through the centuries to other travellers. Let’s look at some of these maps, and particularly at the Ten Ox-Herding pictures of Ch’an [Zen] Buddhism, which provide a superb indication of the challenges and temptations of the spiritual path.


Many people who are consciously engaged in spiritual searching speak of the signs or signals that appear spontaneously in life to guide our future steps. By this I mean both inward and outward choices that appear at strategic times in our lives that give us the opportunity to learn and contribute something positive to ourselves and the world or the opposite if we choose to flow with the negative forces. Such everyday spiritual signals may be seemingly unimportant events such as how we handle inevitable family disputes over seemingly trivial matters, through to major decisions such as the choice of a career which is consistent with our ethical and moral beliefs. If one is sensitive, one can develop a sensitivity to such signals which are nothing less than a god-like part of ourselves attempting to steer our faltering footsteps along the spiritual path. Theosophical teachers call these signals the “daily Karmic script” [for more information on the Daily Karmic Script see Jim Long’s ‘Expanding Horizons’], and encourage us to develop the ability to try and read the lessons that our god-like essence is trying to teach us with everyday experience. The immortal part of ourselves sends us forth on a journey of spiritual understanding each lifetime exactly tailored to what we need to know to unfold the spiritual essence within. Thus it is that the conditions of life and the signals will vary with every person but the opportunity is there for everyone to consider their lifetime’s lessons and try to work out what our Higher Nature is trying to teach us. One very valuable practice in attempting to reach these daily lessons is to follow a form of meditation prescribed by Greek mathematician and spiritual teacher, Pythagoras. He recommended we review the events of each day before falling asleep each night and try to discern which lessons of enduring spiritual value have been learnt from the day’s activities. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras state this map for spiritual development beautifully:

“Never let sleep approach thy wearied eyelids ere thrice you review the day you did. Wherein have I sinned? What did I? What duty neglected? All form the first to the last, review: and if you have erred, grieve in your spirit. Rejoice for all that was good. With zeal and industry this then repeat; and learn to repeat it with joy. Thus wilt thou tread on the pathways of heavenly virtue.”

Our former Leader, Grace Knoche, used similarly to encourage us to learn the lessons of the “daily karmic script” for example in a circular letter where she said: “In the early morning and on retiring at night, empty ourselves of all selfish and irritable thoughts, hurt feelings, and the jangle and pressure of our modern lives; then, in the privacy of our deepest being, revivify the vow taken lives ago; to resolve one day, however long and difficult the passage, to become a Bodhisattva and live and work for the liberation and enlightenment of all living beings. This is our talisman, our inspiration, and our guide.”


The folk-wisdom, religious and philosophic traditions of the world are replete with roadmaps for spiritual paths suitable for different types of people at different periods of time. I sat down the other day to count as many of these maps as I could think of and came up with the following list, but I’m sure you could add to them:

From ancient Egypt: The Book of the Dead (should be called the Book of Coming Forth Into Light) and particularly The Book of the Two Ways.

From ancient Greece – The Illiad and The Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus and the Minotaur, and The Twelve Labours of Hercules.

From the Jewish tradition, The Book of Job in the Old Testament.

From Celtic folklore: the heroic quests of the Knights of the Round Table and particularly the stories associated with the quest for the Holy Grail.

From Christianity: Christ’s life and example in the New Testament and particularly The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A-Kempis.

From India: the Eight Stages of Yoga, the Four Noble Truths and Exalted Eightfold Path of Buddhism, The Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism.

From the art and literature of the Western World: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil’s Aneid, the legend of Christian Rosenkrantz, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Mozart’s Magic Flute.

In modern times: films like the Dark Crystal, Never Ending Story, some episodes of Star Trek, The Star Wars films and books and films like Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and many others.

It is clear enough from these few examples that we have not been abandoned by the wise-ones who have trod the spiritual paths ahead of us. They have left us a myriad of spiritual roadmaps for us to choose from which have inspired millions of others through the ages. I want to mention two briefly which have meant something to me before moving on to the Ten Ox-Herding pictures. Firstly, from the wisdom of ancient Egypt: The Book of Two Ways. In ancient Egypt, the process of growth in spiritual understanding was often pictured as the adventures of the soul in the afterlife and the walls of tombs in ancient Egypt are festooned with roadmaps of the spiritual journey after death. One of these stories tells of a soul travelling a road and reaching a fork called “The Two Paths of Liberation”. Whilst each path leads to the abode of the “gods”, each involves different experiences. One path, passing over land and water, is that of the Egyptian god Osiris who represents cyclic nature and this path involves many lifetimes. The other way leads through fire in a direct and shortened passage along the road of the Egyptian god Horus who in many texts symbolises the divine spark in the heart. Many other cultures also speak of a pathway to a blessed, or heightened state of spiritual understanding, though such a pathway is usually for “warriors”, or the brave at heart, e.g. the American Indians speak of the “Red Path” in similar terms. In Egypt, such a brave soul if successful on his journey along the road of Horus became an initiate of the mysteries and was called a “Son of the Sun”. For the rest of mankind travelling along the road of Osiris, the way is slower, progressing certainly, but more gradually, through the challenges of daily life through many lifetimes. The ultimate achievement is the same – to radiate the highest qualities of the spiritual element locked within the aspiring soul. Clearly, though the Egyptian Book of the Two Ways was written 4,000 years ago, and it is couched in obscure symbolism for most people today, it has much to teach the modern spiritual traveller.

But where are the specific instructions to enable spiritual travellers to find their way in clear and understandable terms to most people today? For these roadmaps, I turn to the Buddhist tradition which clearly states what is required of the spiritual traveller in teachings known as the Four Noble Truths and their logical corollary, The Eightfold Path.

Briefly, the Four Noble Truths are: First, that the cause of suffering and heartache in our lives arises from attachment or “thirst” – trishna; second, that this cause can be made to cease; third, that the cessation of the causes productive of human sorrow is brought about by living the life which will free the soul from attachment to existence; and the fourth truth, leading to the extinction of the causes of suffering, is verily the Exalted Eightfold Path, meaning – : Right Belief, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Behaviour, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Contemplation and Right Concentration. This course of endeavour was called by the Buddha, the Middle Way, because it involved no useless or fanatical asceticism on the one hand, and no laxity of principle and of the thought and consequent behaviour on the other hand. It is a code that is within the reach of every man or woman, calling for no special conditions or circumstances, but able to be practiced by anyone who yearns to better his life, and to do his part in helping to bring about the reduction of misery in our world.

A graphic way of putting these ideas in pictures to guide those who would follow in the footprints of the Brotherhood of Compassion was devised by a Chinese Ch’an Buddhist master in the 12th century and since used by the Zen Buddhists of Japan. They also have their equivalent in the elephant training pictures of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the horse-training pictures of Taoism. In a series of ten simple pictures, the sages of the Zen Buddhist tradition set out a map to guide our steps from the moments we become aware that there is such a thing as the Higher Life to the responsibilities of those who have found it. Let’s look briefly at each picture and maybe they will help guide our footsteps along our spiritual path in the future.

1) The Search for the Bull:

Everyone is searching in their own way for their true nature, amongst the many distractions and entanglements of the world. In our quest, we think that it is far away, in the mountains and streams of the future and we fail to see that the answer is close at hand amidst our own duties and life routines. The “bull” never has been lost, it is part of us but we don’t see it there, a bit like the glasses on our nose! This is a stage we are all painfully familiar with in our search for ourselves amidst the highways and byways of our own nature and the often confusing babble of religious and philosophical organisations.

2) Discovering the Footprints:

Inevitably and eventually we discover the traces or footprints of our true nature, or of how the Universe may actually be in itself. These ‘footprints’ cannot be hidden as they are everywhere in our lives; it is just up to us to be aware and sensitive to their existence. It may be an event in our personal lives, a book, a friend, a gathering of like-minds, but eventually we become aware that there is such a teaching about reality and there is such an aspect of ourselves.

3) Perceiving the Bull:

We pass from seeing the signs of Truth, to direct awareness of a Truth really meaningful to us. We are overwhelmed by its Beauty and Power to move us and nothing will prevent us pursuing this knowledge from now on! This may be a special feeling when we read a book or some special moment of insight in our daily life. We move from a second-hand experience to direct perception and in doing so move; be it ever so slightly, from duality towards the Unity of all things.

4) Catching the Bull:

Once we know that there is such a thing as a greater awareness, life becomes difficult and we enter into a battle to tame the bull. Difficult situations arise from within ourselves, and we perceive ordinary situations in a different way which makes it difficult for us to apply old ways of dealing with them. The “bull” seems insubordinate, used to his old ways, searching for new satisfactions whilst always remaining unsatisfied. This is the condition of many people on the spiritual path. We fail to see that the bull is actually part of ourselves and we are under the illusion that we can whip him into obedience.

5) Taming the Bull:

As long as we are under the illusion that our inner nature [and that of others] is separate from our outer nature, the battle will continue. In fact the two are aspects of ourselves, both necessary in their own way. We should look for the best in ourselves and others, and thus gradually identify with the inner self. The ‘bull” is naturally satisfied and gentle and the “whip” and the “rope” are eventually not necessary. At first we need strong discipline to separate the real and unreal in our search for Truth, later such an appreciation of immediate reality becomes instinctual.

6) Riding the Bull Home:

Riding the ox indicates assimilating one’s outer self with the inner nature. Playing the flute indicates following the inner voice or music of the intuition in a similar way as Lord Krishna is often pictured holding a flute. Flute and hands beat in harmony with the Universal Symphony of infinity as we return to our inner spiritual home, outer and inner self united in this journey. The radiant presence of such an enlightened person in the world may eventually inspire the millions struggling on the road behind.

7) The Bull Transcended:

The sage sits peacefully meditating in the moonlight of early morning, near his simple thatched dwelling with the formerly fearsome ox nowhere in sight – the sage is at last home! This picture emphases that all has been one since the beginning, no two. The ‘ox” was not separate from ourselves but rather the means of realising the One-ness as the sage is doing sitting and meditating in the picture. The disappearance of obscuring clouds in the picture does not create the moon, but rather reveals its existence to us. As the Buddha taught: “He (Buddha) created nothing; rather He simply discovered aspects of the truth about how the universe works”.

8) Both Bull and Self Transcended:

What’s this! There is nothing here, no bull, no person, no situation – nothing or rather No Thing. Having reached home and bathed in the true reality without the obscuring clouds we begin to realise that nothing is independent or permanent. All things are an integral part of the whole and therefore cannot be pictured separately as before we had done with the bull and the man. In this state of direct understanding, there is no need for complicated philosophies or religious dogma. All such are swept away as footprints in the sand by waves on a beach. Instead, here we find the footprints of those brave souls who preceded us in the direct apprehension of Truth – the Chelas, Mahatmas and Ascended Masters.

9) Reaching the Source:

A tranquil scene such as one might see lying on a river bank watching the river flow in mid-summer. The willow dips lazily towards the river, with insects darting above the surface and a bird wings its way through our meditations. As we sit amidst this beauty, the thought occurs to us that immediate reality is the source of everything – the beginning and the end of every spiritual journey. The circumstances of living an enlightened or ignorant life are how we handle the reality of the Now. In this way we can awake to the Source within us then we see that we need not actively be “seeking” or “gaining” – the treasure house is Within.

10) In the World:

Our seeker, who suspected the presence of the Bull in the first picture, now returns to the world an illuminated spiritual teacher helping other questing individuals at the beginning of their Search. Having touched reality as it is, he realises that he is inseparable from the whole and returns to fulfil his duties to other less awakened individuals who have his potential, but are not there yet. The sage seeks no ego fulfilment, special powers, or worldly reward of any kind but rather to live the “Boddhisattva” ideal of service to others by providing guide-posts through the pathways of ignorance to light. We can all identify with some or other of the Ox-Herding pictures, and seek information and direction from those which depict stages ahead of us on the spiritual Path. We can all seek solace from the fact that the final picture shows that the purpose of the journey is not to retreat from this world of suffering for so many. Enlightened individuals who have tread this path before us have not abandoned us to the byways of ignorance. Their and our path leads eventually back to the world and the never-ending task of lifting a little of the load of suffering from Humanity’s shoulders.


“If you do the task before you always adhering to strict reason with zeal and energy and yet with humanity, disregarding all lesser ends and keeping the divinity within you pure and upright, as though you were even now faced with its recall – if you hold steadily to this, staying for nothing and shrinking from nothing, only seeking in each passing action a conformity with nature and in each word and utterance a fearless truthfulness, then shall the good life be yours. And from this course no man has the power to hold you back.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iii, 12.

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