I am looking for symbols which specifically represent Zazen, or, more generally the act of meditating.


The symbol for Zen meditation is Riding the Ox. See Wikipedia article on Ten Oxherding Pictures.

The calf, bull or ox is one of the earliest similes for meditation practice. It comes from the Maha Gopalaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 33). It is also used in the commentaries, especially the one on the Maha Satipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10). As Buddhism spread throughout South-East Asia, the simile of the bull spread with it.

According to this explanation, the use of ox as symbol for meditation predates Zen, but on my memory I have not seen the ox used in any tradition other than Chan/Zen/Seon. Now technically, the ox is probably a symbol for the mind or something like that - so it is not the ox itself but riding it joyfully (symbolized by the flute) is what probably stands for the (successful) act of meditating.

Seal of American Zen College

Riding the Ox

Or perhaps, if you want to show the struggle you can use the fighting scene:

Fighting the elephant

In Tibetan tradition the ox is replaced by an elephant:

Elephant meditation stages in Tibetan Buddhism

In Pali Canon, the Buddha speaks on multiple occasions about herding the grazing cows, taming wild elephants, and training horses as metaphors for Buddhist practice. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke about training our inner gorilla. Dza Kilung Rinpoche compared the gentle but steady approach to meditation with teaching a very young child. I think it should be safe to say that training an animal is probably a good symbol for meditation.

Other generic metaphors used by various Buddhist teachers for (not necessarily Zen, but definitely Buddhist) meditation, that come to mind, include:

  • Improvising a certain theme on a lute, with the strings not tied too tense nor too loose.
  • Flying a kite of mind, tied to the stake of the breath.
  • Practicing airplane "touch-and-goes".
  • Watching the running water calm down.
  • Sobering up without sleeping.
  • Cleaning the kitchen.
  • Weeding the yard or field.
  • Polishing a tile or a mirror.
  • Leveling jungle into a flat field.
  • Honing an arrow.
  • Heating or chilling a piece of smithwork to maintain the right temperature.

These metaphors hint at such factors as steadiness, balanced effort, removing the obstacles, and making incremental gradual progress.

Some of these might make good graphical symbols, too.


From Zen specifically:

Silver valleys and iron cliffs
Swallowing a hot ball of iron
Mingling your eyebrows with the patriarchs
Washing your bowl
Hunting the king of the king deer
Staring at the wall

Those are the ones that come most readily to mind. There are probably scores more I’m forgetting from the various koan collections. What’s listed above specifically refers to seated meditation, but virtually every koan has some symbol or metaphor that you can sorta shoehorn into applying to zazen e.g. putting on your seven piece robe, cutting off your finger, proceeding from the top of the flagpole, etc. Phrases like that actually refer to specific aspects of big mind, but in many cases can be used to describe some of the mental states associated with zazen as well.


The Buddha seated in meditation depicted in symbolic form in a statue.

The most common symbol which implies meditation, and specifically Zen meditation, is a seated figure in a half- or full-lotus posture.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.