There’s a great metaphor about horses in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki used to explain the marrow, or essence, of Zen. It starts off like this:
…it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.
In the usual understanding of Zen—and in almost everything else—we always want to be the best horse, if not the second best. Perhaps we also want to evaluate how good we are and compare with other horses. This is a misunderstanding of Zen, and “if you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one.”
Suzuki goes on to say that the contrary might be true:
When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one.
One way to interpret Suzuki’s metaphor is through the dichotomy between instinct and insight. Good horses have instinct. With their talent for fast reactions, good horses don’t understand what it feels like to struggle, thus taking their talent for granted. Bad horses, as a consequence of lacking instinct, must compensate by deliberately learning what the good horses can do instinctively. In this struggle, bad horses develop insight.
In Zen and in life, talent without struggle can be a curse rather than a blessing. This is why child prodigies often have difficulties in adulthood, and why great artists often resort to substance abuse. Without struggle, there is no sense of having overcome something, no sense of mastery over one’s craft, of realizing the significance of one’s accomplishments. Consequently, those who are talented often suffer from a lack of meaning.
In this way, a blessing is a curse and a curse is a blessing.
Even though crises of meaning might be harder to overcome than crises of talent, the moral of the story is not that the worst horse is the most fulfilled horse, or that the best horse ends up with the most lofty struggle. It doesn’t really make sense to compare one’s life in terms of fulfillment or lack thereof. The moral of the story is to simply draw attention to an often neglected side of the coin.
This flip side to the standard narrative of talent enables us to view our lives holistically, not just in terms of visible achievements. It teaches us there’s no such thing as being definitively good or bad, and that everyone faces a different set of obstacles.
Good horse and bad horse are just different horses.