There is a classic Zen Buddhist parable called Ten Bulls that has brought me a great deal of peace and thought at various points in my life. I realized recently while reflecting on it again that it actually speaks greatly to the growth of a person as they begin to understand how money and personal finances work and they grow along with that understanding.
What follows is Ten Bulls as originally written in the twelfth century by Kakuan. I found it originally in the wonderful book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of various Zen writings translated into English by Paul Reps. Below each piece are my notes on how it applies to personal financial growth; throughout the entire thing, the bull represents what we think of as money, though the understanding of it grows throughout the piece.
1. The Search for the Bull
In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.
The first bull is all about the initial chase for money and material goods. This is often the situation that children find themselves in much of the time, and also the situation that many adults are in when they scour catalogs with reckless abandon, mill around at the mall looking at stuff, lust after consumer goods, sweat about keeping up with the neighbors, and so on. When you experience material desires, you are searching for the bull.
2. Discovering the Footprints
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!
Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.
The second bull represents the acquisition of more money without earning it – in other words, debt. At some point, we discover that it’s easy to chase these impulses by whipping out the plastic. You are acquiring things, but you’re acquiring things by sacrificing pieces of your future. It’s basically the realization of the desires of the first bull, but in the least mature way possible without resorting to theft or other nefarious means. When you use debt to pay for something you can’t afford right now, you are discovering the footprints.
3. Perceiving the Bull
I hear the song of the nightingale.
The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?
The third bull represents the acquisition of more money while earning it through work.. The next step in the journey is the realization that you can acquire more stuff if you earn more money. People who chase huge salaries and huge bonuses so they can buy a Ferrari are busy chasing the third bull. They understand that it is money that leads to the fulfillment of material desires, and when one understands this, they perceive the bull.
4. Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands
The fourth bull represents finding a balance between our material desires and our spending. This is the financial break even point, when one discovers that in order to consistently be able to achieve one’s material desires, one must keep their checkbook in balance and avoid debt. When one catches the bull, one realizes that a life without debt is a good thing, but they have not yet seen the deeper possibilities.
5. Taming the Bull
The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down some dusty road.
Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.
The fifth bull represents getting ahead by merely spending less than one earns. People who are in debt repayment plans and are getting rid of their debt are all about the fifth bull. They see that by spending less than one earns, one will be able to repay debts and eventually be able to accumulate money for later use. Learning that one doesn’t need to spend all of one’s money is taming the bull.
6. Riding the Bull Home
Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.
The sixth bull represents the realization that saved money builds on itself and grows. People who are in good financial shape and are building up a savings account are looking at the sixth bull. They’ve learned that money itself can earn money – you can put the proceeds of your work to work for you. If you are debt free and putting money into a savings account every week or every month, you are riding the bull.
7. The Bull Transcended
Astride the bull, I reach home.
I am serene. The bull too can rest.
The dawn has come. In blissful repose,
Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.
The seventh bull shows that saved money, when invested, grows even faster. These are people who realize that by investing their saved money in things like stocks, bonds, metals, and other things, one’s money can really start to work for you. This means that you’re willing to put your money in a place that’s hard for you to reach because you trust your money to work for you while you’re away. You’ve transcended the bull – money is now a part of you that you trust fully.
8. Both Bull and Self Transcended
Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing.
This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.
How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire?
Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.
The eighth bull occurs when freedom from money occurs and it no longer seems to matter. You live your life at your own self-defined comfort level and financial worries are not a concern for anything that you regularly do. The only worry you have in your own life is your own mortality – you can choose your own path and do what you wish without money constraining you at all. You’ve not only transcended the bull, you’ve transcended yourself.
9. Reaching the Source
Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without –
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.
The ninth bull represents the realization that there is truly more to life than money or material items. This is when you begin to look for a purpose in the freedom of the eighth bull. What do you do with all of that freedom? People who spend their retirement years doing volunteer work have reached the source, for example.
10. In the World
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.
I use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.
The tenth and final bull represents charity – giving your money and gifts away to others. People who achieve wealth then simply give it away to improve the world and devote their gifts to making it better are with the tenth bull – I think of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here. By giving his money away and also giving his gifts away by spending his time managing the foundation, Gates has found the tenth bull. Anyone who takes what they have and gives it to others understands the tenth bull.