Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Four Horses of Zen

In the Samyutta Agama sutra, the Buddha told a parable of four horses. There is an excellent one, a couple of lesser horses and a bad one. He said the best horse runs before it sees the shadow of the whip.  The second best will run just before the whip reaches his skin. The third one will run when it feels pain on his body and the “bad” one will run after the pain penetrates into the marrow of his bones.

I was a bad and stubborn horse, a glutton for punishment, as the saying goes. My ego was very large and it took a long time and much beating before I was broken. Zen has many aphorisms. One fits this beating process. The saying is, “No suffering. No enlightenment. Little suffering. Little enlightenment. Great suffering. Great enlightenment.” The point of this aphorism is that there is a relationship between depths of suffering and motivation. We humans are problem solvers par excellence, but we are also pragmatists with big egos. If we don’t acknowledge problems there seems nothing to solve and we don’t like to whine and complain. We’re rugged individualists after all. Winston Churchill apparently said of Americans, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” If it ain’t broken we don’t fix it and the last thing we want to admit is that we’re broken. Our egos hate this idea of brokenness, but it’s the key that unlocks the mystery of awakening.

Bodhidharma said that without suffering there is no awakening and he is quite right. When life is sailing along and all is rosy, why bother fixing what’s not broken? In such a state the last thing we want is to rock the boat and “see the shadow of the whip.” All of us want to preserve the good and avoid the bad and while life is good who needs to think about everything turning south? We’re not so wise in such moments. We imagine our Nirvana will last forever and consequently rarely plan for the rainy day. Instead we wait until we’re under water and hoping for the Queen Mary to come sailing along.

In psychological terms we are swayed by what’s known as The Normalcy Bias. We get used to what we assume are fixed norms and resist change. The problem is everything is in a state of change, norms included. A wise person will acknowledge change and learn about pulling up our anchors and riding the waves. Few of us have the foresight to anticipate coming catastrophes but the truth is physical life doesnt last forever. Sooner or later we all end up broken and become fertilizer. By then the opportunity to awaken is gone.
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