Here’s the first installment in what I hope will become a new series: my favorite Zen stories. As I mention on my Now And Zen page, one of the reasons I was originally drawn to Zen was its vast, rich repertoire of stories, parables, and koans. Even years after first reading them, some of these verbal sketches linger with a power inversely proportional to their length.
For example, here’s the tale of Mr. Sei’s Horse, as told by Gerry Shishin Wick of the Great Mountain Zen Center:
Mr. Sei lived in a small, poor village. He owned a horse and was one of the wealthiest members of the village. His neighbors used to come to him and tell him how lucky he was to have that horse because he could plow much more field and have a larger income and take better care of his family. Mr. Sei was a very wise man so he didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head. One day the horse ran away and his neighbors come and told him how unlucky he is that his horse had run away. Again Mr. Sei nodded his head. Then the horse returned and a second horse was following. Now Mr. Sei had two horses. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky he is that his horse ran away and came back with an extra horse. Now he has two horses.” Again Mr. Sei just nodded his head. Next the son was plowing the field with the second horse and had an accident and broke his leg. The neighbors rushed over again. “How unlucky he is that he had that second horse, otherwise his son never would have broken his leg and now he can’t help him in the fields.” Mr. Sei nodded. War erupted in the province and the lords were conscripting all of the young men to fight. Mr. Sei’s son had a broken leg, so he didn’t have to go into battle. The neighbors came again and told Mr. Sei how lucky he is that his son broke his leg. This story has no end and continues today.
I encourage you to follow the link above and read Shishin Wick’s commentary on this story. For me, it serves as a simple yet poignant reminder of the limits of categorizing what happens to us as “good” or “bad”—even those situations that would seem very easy to label.
As an example of the good thing that turns out not to be, when I got my first full-time teaching job I thought I was set for life. I’d had to wait a year and a half after graduating with my Education degree—a bad thing, right? Yet in the interim I substituted and tutored extensively, which proved to be very good training: and the job offer I finally received was, of my dozens of applications, at my first-choice school, where I’d done my student-teaching and much of my subbing. I was overjoyed, believing I’d never have to look for work again.
However, within a year I could tell that something was very wrong. Eventually, I realized that conventional schooling and I were a very poor fit, and I felt compelled to leave in order to save myself from unbearable stress and frustration. At that point I went back to grad school, where the plan was to get a PhD and teach at the college level. But then that quickly turned out to be not the path I wanted. Yet almost as quickly I found Sudbury schooling, which has indeed been a very good thing…with its own ups and downs, of course. As Shishin Wick says, “this story has no end.”
As for the bad thing that might not be what it seems, when I got divorced…well, that was clearly awful, right? I mean, short of a death or catastrophic accident or illness, what’s more obviously terrible than going through a divorce? Yet, while it was obviously accompanied by enormous, protracted unpleasantness, I’m not about to claim that my divorce was either a tragedy or a blessing in disguise. In fact, that’s kind of the point: it wasn’t a good or a bad thing, just this thing that happened. I don’t know that I’m better or worse off for it (though I hope I learned from the experience), or both or neither. On the contrary, thinking of “this thing that happened” as either positive or negative takes me out of the moment and gets me stuck in my head, as well as in the past and/or future. Not very Zen, you might say.
Where have you seen Mr. Sei’s Horse in your own life? I would love to hear more examples of the illusory nature of good and bad fortune. If you have a story you can share, please comment below!