Best Horse, Worst Horse

A Zen story for a fretful season.

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Photo by Thanuj Mathew on Unsplash.

Of all the things that might bind a nation’s people together, breathless anticipation of contested election results may never have before been tried. Yet, at this moment, right and left, we are sore beset with essential dread, anxiety, and an increasing desire to have done, whatever the consequences.

Regardless of your preferred outcome, Americans are, at least for the moment, united- in waiting. And waiting, as so many wise sages have pointed out, is often the hardest part.

With so much outside of our control, how can we cope?

A great teacher once said:

“The great sage is kind to the kind, and kind to the unkind, because kindness is his nature.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Whether or not Lao Tzu actually said this, or indeed if Lao Tzu as a single person ever really existed- “Lao Tzu” means merely “old man”- we may never know. The sentiment, however, is that we act in accordance with our inner natures; not simply in reaction to the nature or actions of someone else, or according to our circumstance or life situation.

Come what may, equanimity and kindness are the goal of the great sage. Kindness to others is far easier when you practice kindness on yourself. Often, we need all the kindness practice we can get.

As for equanimity- that transcendental state of being whereupon you aren’t overly concerned with things completely beyond your control and are content to fully exist in the present moment, in which often, though not always, and more so for some than for others, everything is just fine- that is as highly desirable as it is elusive.

But it might be worth pursuing, no matter how hard we have to work at it. The present moment is an excellent escape from dire musings about dystopian futures. Some great teachers of philosophy and spirituality have argued that the present moment is the only one in which we actually exist.

One strategy is to channel challenging circumstances into improving our character, our inner nature. Then, even in adverse situations- which are unavoidable in life- our reactions will stem from equanimity and a kinder, more compassionate character.

Here is a Zen Koan, as quoted by Shunryu Suzuki, which might help.

First Horse, Last Horse

There are four types of horses:

The first horse is the best horse, the one who runs his absolute fastest straight out of the gate, without even the shadow of the whip.

The second horse will also run fastest, but only when the whip is very close.

The third horse, as well, will run fastest; but not until the whip touches his flanks.

The fourth horse will run fastest; but not until the whip strokes have penetrated to the very marrow of his bones.

Now, anyone who hears this Koan immediately wants to be the first horse, the best horse, the horse who runs fastest and best without ever feeling a pang of suffering.

No one on earth wants to be that fourth horse.

But the fourth horse can often be the best horse.

What the fourth horse knows, it knows to the very marrow of his bones. No adverse circumstances could ever erase such sure knowledge. The more hard-won the knowledge, the more keen the suffering, dread and doubt, the harder it is for us to forget.

The first horse has never been tried, never experienced suffering. The slightest thing might hinder his progress, stop the actualizing of great potential.

How can we be more like the fourth horse? Let your suffering be your greatest teacher, learn to the marrow of your bones the hard lessons. Hard lessons are good teachers.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once defined Dharma this way:

“Dharma is the body of teachings which opens the student’s mind to the nature of reality as it actually is.”

This election, COVID-19, the trials and tribulations of 2020, are all part of a body of teachings which can open our eyes to the nature of reality, as it actually is- if we let it.

Like the fourth horse, the best horse, we don’t do our best in spite of our suffering. We do our best because of it.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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