Tuesday, September 11, 2007


In a very old Buddhist text there is a story about the levels of intuition that a students exhibits in studying Buddhism. As with most Buddhist legends, the tale is rich with metaphor and symbolism.

In this story, one day a man approached the Buddha and said, “I do not ask for words. I do not ask for no words. How can you advise me?”

The Buddha looked at the man, and didn’t speak.

The man bowed and said, “How excellent. Your kindness and wisdom have awakened me. I now see perfectly.”

After the man had left, one of the Buddha’s followers said, “Master, I am puzzled. Even though you remained silent, why did that man praise you for helping him awake to the truth?”

The Buddha answered, “It was like a well bred horse seeing the whip and running.”

That’s it. There isn’t any more.

Do you get it?

This story, called The Four Horses, or, in Japanese, “Shime” has been used for centuries to nudge Buddhist students toward self realization. It’s also known as the account of the non-Buddhist questioning the Buddha.

Now I personally know next to nothing about horses other than they are easy to fall off of, and they attract flies. About the only close contact I’ve ever had with horses has been as pack animals when a couple of them have ferried loads of climbing and camping equipment to a mountain base camp while I walked, carrying only a day pack.

Getting back to “Shime,” in his time the Buddha was known for speaking, as well as for not speaking. It’s been written that persons who are able to enter the truth without words or without silence but through intuitional grasp are like good horses.

The Buddha told his followers there are four kinds of horses. The first sees merely the form of the whip and runs. The second reacts when the whip taps its hair. The third is aroused when the whip contacts its flesh. The fourth is animated when the whip touches its bone.

In human terms, the fourth horse is like a person who, close to death, is able to grasp reality. The third is like a person who goes through the death of a loved one and is able to feel the inconstancy of life. The second is like one who faces impermanence within their own community and is able to realize this fact of life. The fourth is like one who realizes the impermanence of all of existence and is vitalized by that realization.

Remember the legend of Bodhidharma’s last conversation with his disciples in which he asked them what they had learned.

One said, “Truth is above affirmation and negation.”

Bodhidharma said, “You have my skin.”

Another disciple said, “Truth is seen once and never again.”

The master replied, “You have my flesh.”

A third said, “There is nothing to be grasped as real.”

Bodhidharma said, “You have my bones.”

Each of these statements was an excellent Zen answer and might have passed in an interview with a master.

The fourth disciple was silent.

Bodhidharma bowed and said, “You have my marrow.”

According to Master Dogen, every individual understands the concept of Buddhism in his or her own way. Some fear it. Some doubt it. Some feel detached from it. Some welcome it.

To quote Dogen, “Those who are able to enter the truth through intuitional grasp of the state of just acting are like good horses.”

Remember the legend of the Buddha’s first contact with the world that existed around his isolated life. He saw a sick person, an elderly person, and a dead person.

Because of that experience, Buddhist teaching may sometimes seem to hover around illness, aging, and death.

But keep in mind Buddhism is really about life.