Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage by Jackie Griffiths

Ox Herding

Reviewed by Timea Barabas

If you are looking for a different kind of a travel journal, you might want to take a look at Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage by Jackie Griffiths. Unlike the classical books of this genre, this novel takes you on an expedition to the previously untouched continents of a person’s psyche.

Just as the title suggests, this book is based on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures which are as Jackie Griffiths explains herself: “a Zen Buddhist philosophical classic that depicts the journey to enlightenment through ten distinct and progressive stages of spiritual development”. In fact the author gives us a brief description of these stages in the Introduction section. Although she admits to having doubts about her interference in the reader’s comprehension of her text (“I write this introduction with great trepidation, acknowledging that I’m running the risk of attracting attention to the finger pointing at the moon, rather than to the moon itself”), I find that some of the associations and explanations she puts forward here are necessary. The most useful intervention she had was introducing the reader to the Ten Ox Herding Pictures. Without this, much of the meaning of the novel would have been lost to me. However, going into the actual plot of the novel in this context seemed unnecessary to me.

There is general symmetry between the Buddhist stages and the chapters of the book, as each chapter corresponds to a stage. But, in the case of Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage, there are a few additional sections. I found the Decoding quite fascinating and it threw a fresh light on the text, but it was a little too late. These explanatory notes should have been accessible while reading not only afterwards. They would have been more impactful if they were on the bottom of the page or if the references would have been numbered. So, future readers be aware! I recommend checking out the Decoding section before diving into the novel.

Jackie Griffiths takes the reader as an observer on an intimate voyage of self-discovery and self-acceptance. When it comes to certain journeys the way we get to the final destination is more important than the destination itself. Jae’s spiritual crisis is triggered by the loss of her grandmother with whom she shared both a deep emotional and intellectual connection. And the key to unlock this mysterious door to a foreign land of inner search comes in the form of a note left by her deceased grandmother, which says: “Seek and ye shall find”. In the end, the destination proves to be the starting point in the spatial dimension, but on a spiritual level, things are much different.

Mirrors are a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel. There is a lot of meaning attributed to these objects. According to popular belief, mirrors reflect our souls and they also can show us a glimpse into the future. Furthermore, it is considered a bad omen if one’s reflection is distorted. Actually, Jae can monitor her progress with the help of her reflection in mirrors. At each stage she makes contact with her reflection, which reveals hidden truths.

Describing and sharing deeply personal spiritual experiences is not an easy task, but Jackie Griffiths’ novel is a heroic attempt at this. Ox Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage is an easy to read book that could appeal to all ages and genders regardless of their specific interests, since it is a book about human nature and our lust for understanding.

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