There is a Zen Buddhist story at least 1,000 years old of an oxherder and an ox, told in ten short poems. In summary, the oxherder expends energy searching for the ox but not appreciating what he sees around him. He eventually begins to see traces of the ox and ultimately spots him. After catching the ox, he tames it and masters it sufficiently to ride it home. At rest at home, the ox disappears, for there is no longer a need for whip or rope. Soon, all merges and disappears–ox, whip, rope, and oxherder. Then, the world as it originally was comes back into focus. All is as it always had been but never perceived or appreciated before. Finally, the oxherder himself returns to his community, no longer searching or seeking what he thinks he does not have but understanding what he has doesn’t matter for he has always had what he needed. He is now free to be a blessing to others. He is content and joyful despite the circumstances of the moment.
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The story is imagined in a set of ten pictures:
A few observations from this story help me better understand my Christian faith. The first set of images is about self-centered pursuits (sin) or trying to master your own life (salvation by works). The oxherder strives to win and tame the ox, yet it is only when he begins to become one with the ox that he eventually learns to release his grasp on life and desire to control his situation. As the ox disappears into himself and then he himself disappear, he discovers that it is not his works that matter. He now sees the world with new eyes as gift and blessing. He returns to society with the selfless service we each are called to in Christ (Eph 2:3-10; 4:32).
The most important image of the ten is the empty circle. It is the act of renouncing sin and self to embrace the gift of God. It is becoming united with Christ and understanding that this world is impermanent, but God is all in all. It is being united with Christ and saying with the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46; Heb 12:2-3). It is fulfilling Paul’s confession that we have died with Christ and no longer live (Gal 2:20).
The empty circle helps me understand the presence of God in the ark of the covenant. The mercy seat, the very presence of God on earth for the Israelites, was an empty space between the wings of two cherubim that sat upon the lid of the ark. God was not in the ark or the cherubim. God was in the empty space. The most real portion of the ark was the spot where no “thing” actually was. The people wanted something tangible, something they could point to and say, “There is God!” So God gave them something tangible, the ark of the covenant. Yet as they pondered Moses’s teaching about the ark and the mercy seat, they realized “there” was not the ark, nor the cherubim, nor any “thing.” “There” was the emptiness found between the two cherubim, below their outstretched wings, and above the lid of the ark. God was teaching them that he was spirit, that this empty space was more real than the matter that surrounded it (Ex 25:19-22).
The empty circle is also the empty tomb. Without the emptiness of that tomb, Christianity is a dead religion (1Cor 15:13-19). There is no return to the source. There is no entering the market with open hands. But through the empty tomb, we discover the secret of contentment (Phil 4:11-13) so that we can seek the needs of others rather than our own needs (Phil 2:1-11). Only when we are empty can we be truly filled (Matt 5:6). Let us yearn for the day when God’s will is fully done on earth, when we fully empty ourselves to be and do for one another, for in that day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of [the glory of] the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14).