In Let The Grief Inform Your Throat, Jennifer Warnes offers, among other matters, her account of how Leonard Cohen introduced “Ballad of the Absent Mare” to her.
After being away on a silent retreat, Leonard Cohen came over to my house wearing an old beige MacGregor jacket, and his face was radiant. There was a little leap inside him. It’s impossible to be sad around Leonard when he is filled up like this because his smile comes from deep places. He came over to share a brand new song, called The Ballad of the Absent Mare. Not every day this happens… Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere. They were called The Ten Bulls, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk’s life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. “I thought this would make a great cowboy song”, he joked.
A scholarly examination of the relationship of these images, used for centuries to illustrate “the stages of a practitioner’s progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment, as well as his or her subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom,”1 can be found at Teaching Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures through Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad of the Absent Mare” by Ronald Green. ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts. 24(1), pp. 29–58: April 5, 2017. The abstract follows:
This paper describes how to teach Zen’s famous Ten Oxherding Pictures through Leonard Cohen’s song “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” It also explains how instructors can contextualize these pictures within the history of Buddhist visual culture and thereby frame Cohen’s adoption of them as a cowboy ballad motif. The essay begins by describing the metaphor of the ox. It then reviews three theories about the origin of the pictures, contextualizing them within the history of Buddhist visual culture. Finally, it provides a PowerPoint presentation that connects each of the Ten Oxherding Pictures to verses of Cohen’s song and offers comments for instructors’ use in class.
Credit Due Department: Graphic atop post by Tenshō Shūbun – Shokoku-ji Temple website, Public Domain, Via Wikipedia Commons
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted July 22, 2017.