Zen Parables

The Rider and The Horse

Stories have been used to relate moral lessons for perhaps as long as they have been told, and parables are stories that specifically serve a didactic function. One such parable is that of the rider and the horse which comes from Zen Buddhist tradition.

‘There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”’ (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Rider 1999)

The galloping horse here is our mind when our conscious self is oblivious to its own actions and follows habits without stopping to think what exactly it is that it’s doing. Many often find themselves in the situation of being the negligent rider riding a spirited horse. The mind is fed information from the outside world and if something starts to evoke our emotions, it starts rushing with thoughts, and like a spooked horse our thoughts start galloping without us being aware of it. We find it difficult to stop our horse and steer it in the direction that we want it to go. Zen practice involves rigorous meditation to stop the sea of thoughts and cravings in the mind in order to be liberated, but we don’t have to be meditating monks to benefit from this parable. Buddhism teaches to not be attached or to be lost in either positive or negative emotions but rather react with calm observation to the processes running in our mind. The horse that is our mind is also galloping when we are lost in absent mindedness, which I am guilty of even as I write these very words as is my habit. The Buddhist advice here would be to not hold on to guilt and spiral down a further road of self deprecation, but rather simply observe what is going on in the mind. What is going on in the mind is simply the play of cause and effect. In the case of absent mindedness we can say that the rider is in a mesmerized trance while they are on a galloping horse that flies by of its own accord without a human to give it any instructions. Once the rider snaps out of their distraction, the wise thing to do is not to punish the horse but rather understand what made it start running, show compassion to the animal, then plot the appropriate course to take.

This Buddhist parable seeks to warn of being mindless, which is the opposite of mindfulness, which is central to Buddhist practice. Quite often we are mindless when riding a horse, and we feel powerless and it seems like we can’t stop, but we must learn the art of stopping. Stopping to be mindful, stopping to stop the horse, stopping to think about what caused the horse to start panicking or wander aimlessly, and stopping to formulate which road we want our horse to take. Once we have done that we can tell our horse to start moving, and by being mindful we can ensure that it stays in our control throughout the whole journey. If along the way we find something that spooks the horse we must calm the animal and have our rational awareness guide the poor creature. If along the way our awareness slips without our noticing we must wake up as soon as we realize that our awareness has slipped, and immediately take the reins of our horse lest it stray from the right path.

To sacrifice immediate gratification for long term success is common advice given to us but very difficult to follow through. Here again, visualizing the parable of the horse and the rider can help some of us. Not only can the horse be spooked or the rider be absent minded. Sometimes the horse can also be mesmerized by something charming and wish to stray from the path we have set for it. It is at this moment that we tell our horse that what lies at the end of our pre-planned destination offers a greater reward than the immediately desirable and enchanting path which the animal wishes to take. Once we have successfully completed our journey, having avoided the horse going out of our control, we must stay true to our word and reward the animal by giving ourselves a little time to do something we like to do.

References Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Rider (1999) Thich Nhat Hanh & Lilian Cheung Savor Mindful Eating, Mindful Life; HarperCollins (2010)

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