Which kind of horse are you?
This week we're looking at case 32 in the Gateless Barrier, 'An Outsider Questions Buddha'. At first reading, we might well relate to Ananda's confusion regarding the encounter between the Buddha and the unnamed outsider! But let's dig into the story and see what we can make of it.
Who is the mysterious stranger?
In the context of Chinese Buddhism (where Zen originated), an 'outsider' refers to someone following a non-Buddhist path. Sometimes, outsiders are looked down upon - people like to come up with schemes which 'rank' different spiritual paths against each other (mysteriously, the author's own path always comes out on top), and even Zen has one of these, the 'five kinds of Zen'. The paths are ranked as follows, from lowest to highest:
Note that the poor old outsider only scores two Zens out of five on this list, whereas of course I, being a big fan of Silent Illumination, score a perfect five Zens out of five. Good for me!
As you can probably tell, I don't take this kind of ranking terribly seriously. Multiple paths have evolved because different people respond to different teachings and practices. In my view (and the view of the Lotus Sutra, if you want scriptural authority), they're all valid approaches, none 'better' or 'worse' than any other.
Nevertheless, in this koan, the 'outsider' - who we might reasonably assume doesn't know the first thing about Buddhism - is seen to have a profound awakening, while Ananda, the Buddha's lifelong attendant and enough of an expert on the Buddha's teachings that he was able to recite them all after the Buddha's death, doesn't have a clue what just happened. So this koan performs a similarly subversive function to case 31, where the unnamed woman at the side of the road is revealed to have a profound understanding surpassing that of an obedient Zen monk.
The bottom line is the same - wisdom can show up anywhere. So be alert!
The spoken and the unspoken
OK, so we realise that the koan is telling us to take the outsider seriously - but when we try to do so, we hit another barrier. What the heck does the outsider's question mean?
As is fairly common with these things, the three commentaries I consulted all explain this line differently, so I'll give you my take on it, for whatever it's worth.
In the realm of Zen (and contemplative practice more generally), there are certain matters which can usefully be discussed - 'the spoken'. If you want to practise meditation, it's helpful to have a technique, and it's useful to discuss your practice with a teacher to confirm that you're doing it right. (You probably are, but it's still good to check.) A good meditation teacher should be able to offer one or more methods of practice clearly enough that you can figure out what you're meant to be doing, and should be willing to discuss your practice with you. Beyond the nuts and bolts of practice, there's also quite a bit more to Buddhism which can usefully be discussed - core teachings like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the ethical precepts and so on. All of this is amenable to description and discussion, and it's worthwhile to learn about it.
At the same time, however, there's a limit to what can be reached through words. Words originate from, and relate to, the world of concepts - thoughts, descriptions, ideas, theories. No matter how nifty it is, a concept can never exactly replicate an experience - it can only point to it. If I say 'this tea I'm drinking is warm and minty', that description does not give you the experience of drinking my tea - it only allows you to imagine how my tea might taste, based on tea you may have tasted yourself at some point in the past. To put it in more Zen terms, a painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger. In Zen practice, we're interested in exploring reality in an experiential way, not just a conceptual one - and so, at some point, we have to accept that what we're looking for can't be found in words. And so there's a dimension of practice which cannot be discussed - 'the unspoken'.
Now, the outsider is no dummy. He clearly gets both of these points - and yet he hasn't broken through to awakening yet. This is a frustrating time! Your teacher says you're doing the right thing, everything seems to be lined up properly... and yet nothing happens in your practice. What gives? This is the outsider's question: he isn't asking about either the spoken or the unspoken, and yet he's reached an impasse. Help!
Four kinds of student, or four attitudes in practice
After the outsider has gone, Ananda goes to the Buddha and essentially says 'What the heck just happened?' Poor old Ananda - he's always the butt of the joke in these stories, despite being a wonderfully diligent attendant to the Buddha for his whole life, and a famously nice guy to boot. Honestly, I think we could all do with a bit more Ananda in our lives. But I digress.
The Buddha's answer is one of those references where you just have to know the context for it to make any sense. The business with the horse and the whip is a reference to a story from early Buddhism about 'four kinds of horses', a metaphor for four kinds of students. (The full story can be found in AN4.113.)
The 'best' horse is the one from the koan - it goes as soon as it sees the mere shadow of the whip. It's well trained, it understands what it needs to do, and so the slightest suggestion is enough to get it moving. This represents the committed, intuitive, inquisitive meditation student, who only needs a hint from a teacher in order to go off and explore for themselves. The Buddha is saying that the outsider is someone like this - even the subtlest of responses was enough to open things up for him.
The second-best horse is one which needs to feel the brush of the whip against its mane before it'll get moving. This represents a student who is diligent enough but rather unimaginative, and needs to be given step-by-step instructions. If they encounter something new, they're likely to come back for further instructions rather than explore themselves, or say something like 'Well you didn't tell me to do that!'
The third-best horse is one which needs to feel the whip against its body. This represents a student who needs to be reminded over and over what to do, and will very easily wander off and start doing something else entirely if the teacher isn't careful. This type of student will often ask basically the same question over and over - perhaps because they're unwilling to accept the answer.
The fourth-best horse is one which, rather grimly, needs to be whipped to the bone in order to get a response. (Caveat: this is not an article about how to work with actual horses. Nor do I recommend whipping actual meditation students to the bone.) This represents someone who is holding so tightly to their current world view that it's almost impossible to get through to them - whatever the teacher says is filtered through their existing set of ideas about how the world works, and most of it ends up on the floor.
(Chan teacher Guo Gu has joked that there's also a fifth kind of student, the 'dead horse', who doesn't respond at all no matter how much you flog them.)
Now, the trouble with a list like this is that we immediately start wondering which kind of horse we are. 'Oh, I'm no good, I'm clearly the rubbish horse.' 'I've always been the top horse, don't you know.' 'Well, I think I'm a reasonable horse, but maybe I'm actually the bad one after all?'
Personally, I find it more helpful to approach this teaching in terms of four attitudes, any of which we might be holding at any given moment. One of the things we discover through practice is that we aren't fixed entities, which means that it simply can't ever be true to say 'Oh, I'm this kind of horse, and that's just how it is - I'll never change.'
On the other hand, when I look at my own practice, I can definitely see times when I've been able to take a fragment of a clue from one of my teachers and pull on that thread until something interesting happens. On the other hand, as I was writing the paragraph above about the student who says 'Well you didn't tell me to do that!', I could imagine it in my own voice - so, yeah, I find myself in that position a lot of the time, being rather literal-minded and prone to a lack of imagination at times. The third category is a bit more embarrassing, but I've had plenty of those moments as well - I'll have some kind of insight into my conditioning, then briefly wonder why nobody has ever pointed it out to me before, and then turn bright red as I remember the hundreds of times over the years that my friends have done exactly that. I can even see aspects of the fourth horse in myself, usually showing up as beliefs I didn't even realise I was holding until something challenges them strongly enough to shatter them outright. Very often, when I've been 'stuck' in practice - in that same holding pattern described by the outsider in the koan, seemingly doing all the right things but not going anywhere - it's been because I'm subtly holding onto something, and change is impossible until I'm willing and able to let go of it.
Perhaps, then, rather than looking at this as a kind of personality test with a fixed answer, we can instead turn it into a question. What's going on in your practice right now? Are you exploring, are you snug in your comfort zone, or are you stuck in the desert of 'nothing happening at all'? Is there anything your teacher says on a regular basis that gets a 'yeah, yeah, I know all that' reaction from you - and, if so, what would happen if, purely as an experiment, you supposed that actually you don't already know 'all that', and instead approached it with fresh eyes? How would it be to bring a genuine question mark into your practice, right now? What might you find if you could let it all go, even for a moment?
I hope you find out!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!