The four horses: reflections on a Buddhist parable.
In his seminal book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shenruyu Suzuki, shares this passage from one of the oldest Buddhist sutras: “In our scriptures (Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33), it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!“
I first read this parable in the early days of my practice many years ago and was impressed by it. The different type of horse here is a metaphor for students with varying degrees of ability who follow the Way, the Buddha's teachings. It is commented that what is referred to here is the depth of a student's understanding of the notion of annica, impermanence. In a way, the smarter you are, the quicker you understand and grasp it, you will direct your life and actions accordingly. You don't lose much time and move swiftly to awaken from the snares of samsara, the world of birth and death, having realized how short life and how unpardonable the vicissitudes of human existence are.
When I first began practicing I was much more diligent than now. Then, I was entertaining the idea that I was, when it comes to horses, of the first type, the smart ass that quickly figures things out, no need to be whipped, seeing its shadow rise on the wall would be more than enough to get me galloping the fields. Yes, youthful optimism. The possibility of going down the list to become the last horse, the one needing a thrashing so bad the whip would have to touch its bone, then and then alone out of sheer pain would resolve to move one hesitant hoof in front of the other, would not have crossed my mind.
There was a part of me that wanted to demonstrate what I perceived to be some greater abilities to my master and fellow practitioners in our monastery. I guess the need for confirmation had an equal dose of low self-esteem and arrogance to it. I was not aware then of the drive and sense of competitively that was an important thrust in my practice. That pretense would soon be taken care of. First through what my master had to teach me, but equally through life. Life was both cruel and kind enough to point to where my true rank was. It took me a long time and a hard look at myself to realize that in any stable I would have a much greater affinity with a chronically lame equine than with a thoroughbred racehorse no matter what my fantasies about my capacity would be.
This brings us to the inherent sense of ambition that is inevitably present in any spiritual quest. The line between aspiration and ambition is not always clear. Some form of ambition may be necessary to get you going but all ambition can do is to just keep you going; going from one goal to another, one destination to another, one achievement to another. In the end, we are left depthless and exhausted. Maybe what makes ambition stale in the long run is that it may have an element of craving to it; would you ambition something you did not have any cravings towards? Not wrong, just limiting, binds you, not much freedom in it.
In Buddhism, craving, along with ignorance and anger, is considered one of the three poisons that perpetuate our sense of suffering. If we are perpetually chasing after something, be it material or spiritual, when will we be able to truly rest? When will we discover the deep peace and rest that surfaces not as a result of our wanting, craving, striving and struggle but precisely when we give all that up. This is an essential point the Buddha discovered about meditation, peace does not come to you through any form of struggle, peace appears when you abandon all struggle and striving.
Reading Michel de Montaigne the 16-century French writer when I was a young student in Paris, I came across this sentence in his Essais that startled me: avoir l’ambition de ne pas avoir d’ambition / to have the ambition to have no ambition. That’s turning ambition on its head. In a world where everyone strives for success not being on the top dooms us to feeling a failure, a loser. The fourth horse would surely fall under that category, the loser type. In the eyes of the world that is. But it is what you make of your own journey in the end that matters not what the world thinks of you. What the world and others mirror back to us is unreliable, inconsistent and at best elusive. We need to find our own center and settle there, but no centering comes without some unsettlement. It doesn’t really matter what kind of horse we are at the end, nor does it matter if we have to limp along on the way for the rest of our journey.
We need to accept ourselves as we are and learn to develop a sense of warmth for that. Granted, that takes time, patience. That warmth, when it settles in, naturally irradiates on our relationship with others and with the world, no effort nor contrivance is needed there.
In my counselling work, I have often shared this story when people have felt terrible about themselves. I've found that it always brought a sense of lightness to the conversation, especially when I share some of the above with them which is very relatable. Helps them to relax with their stories about what kind of a horse they are. They would often feel that there is deep humanity for us to share even in the lowest moments and most difficult experiences, sometimes in the pits of emotional hell.
It is also here when a sense of that warmth touches us, that we can stop taking ourselves too seriously and connect with a formidable asset we easily lose sight of, humor. The fourth horse has much to laugh about herself and the world; the world of horses, the world of humans , the world of hungry ghosts and jealous gods that haunt many of our narratives and dreams. Samuel Becket and his wicked sense of humor come to mind: " Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. " In the Unnamable, he is more eloquent: " When you are neck deep in shit there is one thing left for you to do, sing."
The great Japanese Zen monk and poet Ryokan, puts it differently but with as much lightheartedness and humor:
Too lazy to be ambitious, I let the world take care of itself. Ten days' worth of rice in my bag; a bundle of twigs by the fireplace. Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment? Listening to the night rain on my roof, I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.
There is a stubbornness to the fourth horse in the face of adversity, unquestionably.
" We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” Jack Gilbert