How to Ride the Ox or the Horse!
21. September 2018
As a zen student, we are assigned to give talks from time to time by my zen teacher or Roshi. This is a written transcript of a talk I gave a little while ago and I thought it would be a good representation of zen practice and applying it in your life.
I want to thank my Zen Teacher for assigning this talk – it definitely grounded me to focus on this talk. And while love knows no comparison, I have noticed that each time I have been assigned a talk my preparation has been different – most notably in that I am less anxious. I thought that that it would make sense to talk about something that has happened to me since the last time I spoke which is something very significant — in fact a sacred relationship – that is with my new horse Emathika’s Midnight Tulip, or Emma for short. I decided to talk about the beginning of my journey with Emma in relation to the first few Ox Herding Pictures and I noticed that while looking them up, in Taoism they are called the Horse Training Pictures.
#1 Search for Emma
I started to look for a new horse in May 2014. That may sound redundant or spoiled because I already had a horse – but it is not uncommon for new riders to buy their first horse based on emotion, which often means the horse is unsuited to the rider’s needs. I honestly picked Buster to be my first horse because I already had an emotional attachment to him as well as because of how cute he was – he looked like exactly what I imagined a perfect horse to be.
Buster taught me many things about being in a relationship and loving a horse, particularly during our experiences handling him on the ground. Unfortunately for him, I was rarely open to cultivating a deeper relationship and becoming one with him while riding him because I was so fearful that I rarely just simply “rode.” My riding teacher, Michelle says that Buster is definitely not a safe “beginner’s” horse as he is extremely opinionated as well as stubborn. Buster required a very awake, assertive and confident rider, which I am not yet.
Still, Buster and I had a lot of fun together, and I love him madly- but I was extremely fearful just about every time I rode and it rarely got better. Yes, there were moments few and far between. It was most fun riding him after a long zen meditation retreat because I wasn’t spinning in my head or identifying with my ego-thoughts so much. In order to learn how simply “just to ride” it may be necessary for some students to have an old grandma horse with a very forgiving, trustworthy, wise and dependable mind.
We can think of it like a Zen student who may go to many different Zen teachers to find their real teacher. Some students are attracted to famous teachers who have written a lot of books, whom they perceive as “glamorous,” or they are drawn to Zen centers that are new-agey, where the community does a lot of analyzing and psychological processing. Students like that may not be ready for a real teacher yet.
Buster was very glamorous to me. He was the cutest horse I every saw and he gave me a lot of opportunities to wake up and just ride, but I realize now that I was simply not ready. I loved to watch my riding teacher Michelle ride Buster because it helped me change my beliefs about him and SEE what was possible – especially that the possibilities have no limits when you JUST RIDE (in other words, “go to your practice”) rather than worrying about what Buster might do. Once I started spinning in my head about what could happen, my whole body language would change and I would go fetal – but Buster could sense it BEFORE my body even began to change. As Jesus said: As within, so without.
One time when Michelle was riding Buster he started to kick her foot with his back leg when she put her spurs in him to correct him. We were talking through headphones, so I was able to ask her in that moment if she got frustrated when a horse misbehaves like that. She looked right at me and simply said, “Why would I get frustrated? I become a blank slate, just correct them and tell them with my body language what I want. If they don’t do it, I ask them again with a stronger aid. And when the horse does what I have asked, I praise them as if it was their idea and let the horse know they did a good job.”
Michelle is always telling me to ride what I want not what I don’t want. If Buster bucked me off and I was able to get back on, Michelle would tell me to ride as if it never happened. She told me I can only ride what is happening right now, not a few moments ago. To ride what you have in this moment is another way of saying “go to the practice” – no matter what. When training a horse you need to start with the foundation, just like when you build a house. It requires repetition and correction over and over, along with Right Discipline, Right Effort, etc.
One time after a riding lesson, I wanted to ride Buster to cool down on the trail around the perimeter of the Equestrian Center, which entailed leaving through a gate that was close to his stall. Buster ignored my request to go through the gate and started trotting faster and faster until he stopped in front of his stall. I was aggravated, embarrassed, annoyed but mostly FRUSTRATED. I believed without a doubt I could never get him through the gate – even worse I believed no one else could either. I asked Michelle the next day to ride him through the gate after our lesson so I could SEE it. It helps to learn by example – the teacher teaches through demonstrating. Just seeing Michelle ride Buster through that gate helped me pry my mind open to see that it was possible which further led me to gain courage to directly experience the truth for myself.
It sounds like I am making excuses for myself about why Buster wasn’t the right horse for me to learn to ride on and I acknowledge that may be the case. Some teachers are not for everyone, for where they are right now, because they may not be ready and that is alright. Just don’t judge yourself for that. Michelle demonstrated to me that being awake on a horse is possible, and her belief in me reminded me each lesson that I had the potential to simply ride too.
#2 Discovering the footprints
It was time to find a new horse-teacher because I was just reinforcing delusion each time I rode Buster in the dressage arena. During our new horse search, I was fixated on getting a male horse. A closed mind limits and excludes the possibilities. Roshi says don’t trust anything the ego says – the ego always excludes rather than extends to include. Any decision the ego makes is wrong. When I told Michelle I only wanted a gelding (male horse), she told me that I could be missing out on a pretty spectacular mare (female horse), but I didn’t care. I see this same fixation when it comes to the practice. Our real power lies in our having a choice – we have the choice to go to the practice or follow our thoughts. The decision is up to you, and no one can do it for you.
I remember when I was looking for a Zen teacher I had a fantasy that the teacher needed to be Japanese. But when I read the book Ambivalent Zen and realized the teacher could be called back to Japan at any time, I dropped that dream immediately. I liked that my Zen Teacher was from Colorado, where I went to college, and that we had the mountains in common.
While I was fixated on getting a gelding, I still made an effort to remain open to any horse that became available during our search (but I secretly still only wanted a boy). Michelle, of course, looked at all horses that might be suitable and ignored my silly ego request. The horses that we looked at in California all happened to geldings, so my fantasy remained intact for a while. I could literally feel how closed my mind was, but I continued to make an effort to ride each horse that appeared to be suited to my needs. The veterinarian failed any horse that we got close to buying anyway, so the search went on. At least I had a few glimpses of the limitless possibilities.
#3 Perceiving the Bull
After looking at and trying many, many horses for almost a year, Michelle thought it might be a good idea to look outside the United States and go to Europe – where dressage began. Holland, Germany and many other countries in Europe are like going to the Rift Valley or Mecca of dressage. Lineage in dressage horses is very important – literally your foundation.
Since I was making a sincere effort not to rule anything out, so far I had not said “No” to any horse, I figured why not just keep remaining open and keep saying yes and go to Holland. Because there are zillions of dressage horses in Europe they are much cheaper there and you get a much better deal, which is why it was worth the trip. Trusting your teacher is the same as trusting your practice. A true teacher knows that you can do it even when you do not believe you can. A real teacher knows you are a Buddha and directly sees your Buddha nature, which gives you the courage to make the effort even when you don’t believe it.
We started making plans to go to Holland to meet with a representative there who would show us as many horses that would suit my needs for 2 to 3 full days. We saw a lot of horses in a lot of different environments – it was really fascinating. We went to people’s backyards, horse breeding farms, working farms with all different types animals as well as dressage training facilities.
Each time we would go to a new place, there would be a rider who would first demonstrate what the horse was capable of and if we were interested, Michelle would ride the horse and then let me know if she thought it would be a match for my ability. We would learn about the horse’s background, lineage, why the horse was for sale, etc. We had a lot of extraordinary experiences; in fact, there were several horses that I was definitely interested in, and I wanted to bring many of them home! Some horses were not suited to me because they would require a more experienced rider – for example, during a demonstration one horse bucked and bolted and I told Michelle no way – for her to not even bother getting on. At one of the dressage training barns they supposedly had only one horse to show us and when it my turn to ride him, the horse was so enthusiastic at the walk and so FAST I didn’t even want to ride him anymore. He was like a car that drives without even pressing the gas!
That is exactly what an experienced rider wants – to DO NOTHING to keep the horse going. Less is more – and ultimately the goal is to make it look effortless, as if the horse is dancing on his own. Personally, I feel more confident on a slower horse that you need to ask to walk forward instead of one that is practically running right when you place your seat in the saddle!
They just happened to have another horse at this dressage facility to show me when I told them why I was not interested in the fast-walking one and what kind of horse I did want – which is called a “schoolmaster.” This horse’s name was Benji, but I renamed him Maestro. He was actually an alternate on the Italian Olympic team, had a lot of experience, knowledge and was confident doing his job. I would have loved to bring him home too.
We saw Emma on the first day – she was from a private horse-breeding farm. Emma was born on the property and had only had two riders on her ever. She was almost 6 years old. There were actually two horses at her farm for us to try. The first horse was a bay gelding named Fashion who was smaller and had only just turned five years old. He was my perfect fantasy horse — exactly what I imagined I had come to Holland to buy. Not only was he beautiful and flashy but since he was younger he had a year’s less training on him than Emma. I fell in love with Fashion more when I rode him. He was both responsive and comfortable, but most important to my ego at the time, – he matched exactly what I was dreaming and ruminating about. I was in love.
If it was up to me I would’ve stopped there, but I knew that I had to keep my mind open and ride Emma too. While I resisted liking her, I had to admit she was a nice horse. She has an elegant, regal quality and is very confident with herself. She definitely has a presence. I could see that Emma wanted to do a good job – she has a good work ethic and enjoys praise for a job well done. She had previously been started (they say “started” now instead of “broken” because it is more politically correct) with an autistic man who worked at the breeding facility who spoke “horse” and by the 16-year-old girl who did the demonstration. The girl’s dad owned the facility, and she had been training Emma for the last three years. She was a fabulous rider.
Michelle told me that of all the horses we tried she thought Emma would be the best horse for me to learn how to ride and gain confidence. Admittedly my ego did not agree; I wanted the cute boy. I listened to what Michelle had to say: Since Fashion was younger he would be more of a “project.”
It hit me at that moment that I was almost going to do again what I had done previously, which was to get a horse based on my fantasy rather than on what my teacher thought would be best for me. I flashed back to Michelle’s describing Buster as a project, and realized that if there was ever a moment to break wide open and release the judgment, this might be it. The time had come to trust the unconditioned mind – the mind not dependent on any conditions – and to truly listen to what my teacher had to say rather than my ego.
Yesterday I was unsure how to end my talk and then I checked my email this morning and I found out that Michelle is going to be moving to Florida next month because her wife got a job there. My first reaction, or conditioned response, was to feel abandoned and sad. Next I saw that I can’t make everything about ME – how is she feeling about it? And then I realized how much gratitude I have for my zen practice, which is constantly opening up if you simply allow it.
There is literally no danger when I look around –I have a habit of both dreading routine and fearing change, but I am starting to trust the practice and learn not to resist so much, so that each moment can be an opportunity rather than a prison. The gratitude I have for my practice only increases with time. My breath is always there, and I am reminded to go inward.