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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this. I'm not sure why but I feel it in my soul.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 8:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny that the fourth kind of horse, the one who learns lessons the hard way, is interpreted to be the "bad" horse. He might be harder to teach but his faith is unshakeable. No?

I can be hard headed like this horse, but I am very happy I have not given in easily when so many conflicting values were waved in front of my face like pretty flags throughout my life. Interestingly the scars on my bones are from the times I tried on someone else's values for size. Those scars say to me, I was right and I should continue listening to that intuition.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 11:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure that not any one of the type of horses (or person) is either "good" or "bad". Each one was simply the way he or she is at the moment.

We all change and grow according to our own nature (or personality) and nurture (environment).

However, the moment of realization is the key -- no matter how or when we get "there". The flourishing of our mind into oneness with the One Mind is a great source of joy and contentment and the heart of it all.

Sunday, October 30, 2011 9:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first learned of this by a episode of body of proof and ever since then. I have really fell in love with this saying for some reason. I'm not really sure why I do but I like it.

Monday, March 26, 2012 5:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw that episode now... In Norway.I have lately been doing some kundalini yoga, and joined taiji classes. So I was interesed in the quote from Body of Proof, looked it up, and found this page! Amazing! To read the full story here, really touches me... It is beautiful! I have always been trying to live life to the full. And when I got a cancer diagnosis, it makes even more sense! Guess I am both the first and the fourth horse? Or just the first, feeling the whip after I started to run...

Sunday, April 01, 2012 2:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw that episode yesterday in India nd it made me curious to find out more about the four horses,I guess I am the fourth horse too, I need a gentle whip now nd then to canter along, guess iam an astray horse in search for the right direction in life :)

Sunday, November 18, 2012 1:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard that episode last night in the UK. It made me look it up. I fear that I react to the world as a fourth horse, but I am grateful that I 'think' I react to the spiritual aspects as one of the other horses. How to get it right!? Thank you to the Universe for that episode. Theresa

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 4:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

same thing happened to me, great movie, great words of wisdom. greetings from romania.

Sunday, October 26, 2014 1:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strange that so many of us are being led to this exact spot in cyber-space by one episode of TV drama? I hope to cycle through all the horses, for I am Horse, by Nature, and must experience myself fully to say I have truly lived a full life and learned my lessons.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015 9:26:00 PM  

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