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The Year of the Ox

February 12th is Chinese New Year!

Feb. 12 marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox.

The Ox is the second animal of the Chinese zodiac and denotes the hard work, positivity and honesty that will be manifested in all of us in the coming 12 months.

These positive characteristics attributed to the Ox appear not only in Chinese mythology but in legends throughout south east Asia. In fact, the Ox has been featured in religion, art and literature throughout these regions for centuries.

In Buddhism the Ox represents ‘Buddha nature’ which is the fundamental nature of all things. This idea includes the assumption that anyone can gain enlightenment. Japanese Buddhism often uses the image of an Ox herder struggling to pull his stubborn Ox along a road. And a famous Buddhist parable of a young Ox herder searching for his lost Ox tells how his difficult quest teaches him to tame and transform his mind. This struggle to find and then subdue the Ox is a metaphor for our own struggles with life and our personal spiritual growth.

The indigenous religion of Japan Shintoism, also reveres the Ox and it’s common to see bronze Ox statues in the shrines and around the grounds.

The Ox is associated with Sugawa no Michizane, a scholar and poet of ninth century Japan. Due to his success and rising power, he was banished and chose to go into exile on the back of an Ox. It was said that when he died the Ox carrying his remains in the funeral procession came to a standstill midway along the route and refused to move.

The people built a shine on the spot where the Ox halted to honor him.

Following his death, a litany of natural disasters occurred including lightning strikes, floods and a plague! Terrified by these happenings, the ruling classes sought to appease Michizane’s vengeful spirit by deifying him. He became ‘Tenjin’ — the god of academics, scholarship and calligraphy — and his spirit was enshrined in shrines called ‘Tenman-gu’.

Tenman-gu shrines are popular places to pray for success in study and academic endeavors and are visited in droves by students and scholars in times leading up to national exams. Today, there are estimated to be about 14,000 such shrines in Japan. One of the main ones is Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka Prefecture, which is built over Michizane’s grave.

I'm fortunate enough to live about an hour away from Dazaifu Tenman-gu and have been there many times. It's a place I always take my visiting family and friends because not only is it steeped in history, but it's deeply beautiful too.

As a god associated with thunder, Tenjin-sama is also praised to invoke rainfall. Because of this he is considered a god of agriculture too, another link to the hardworking Ox of the fields of ancient times.

Oxen or cows are regarded as messengers of Tenjin, which has resulted in the proliferation of statues of Oxen in Tenman-gu shrines. Many statues are lying down as a reminder of the Ox that rested during Michizane’s funeral procession.

The Ox is also known for its healing powers and the statues when touched, bring curative relief to physical conditions.

Let's celebrate the Year of the Ox with a promise to ourselves to embody the characteristics of this noble animal. Let us be hard working, powerful and confident in our own strength. Let us be determined to finish what we start and if need-be sacrifice our short term desires for our long-term goals. Above all, though we are strong, let us embody the gentleness of the Ox as we travel our worldly path.


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