As many of you know, I love the stories from Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). He was a sage that stood apart from others in Chinese history. He was a unique presence, who was well known for his deep understanding of the Dao (Tao) and sense of humour. A great mind that lived twenty-four hundred years ago, during the warring states period in China.
Zhuang Zi loved to teach through stories. The tales he created drew his students in, captured their imagination, and conveyed the Dao in unforgettable ways.
This is one of my favourites, wonderfully translated by Derek Lin in his book, The Tao of Happiness:
The Horse Lover
Once there was a man who was obsessed with horses. He spent all of his time taking care of them, especially his prized possession – a powerful stallion of tremendous value. He loved this horse so much that he would often use a large wicker basket to catch its droppings and a container made of seashell for its urine. This was because he wished to quickly remove any offending waste from the presence of his beloved steed.
One day, he was feeding this stallion and grooming it as usual. He heard a buzzing sound and saw that a large fly had landed on the horse. “Trying to feast on the blood of my steed? I’ll teach you!” Angrily, he slapped at it on the horse’s backside.
The horse, startled by the sudden slap, reacted reflexively. Its massively muscled legs kicked out and struck the man dead center. Such was the force of the kick, the man died instantly. Then, the horse resumed munching on the feed placidly, without any awareness or the least bit of care that it had just killed its owner.
Derek Lin’s Commentary
The elements of this story are not what they seem. The horse isn’t really a horse, but a symbol representing an all-consuming attachment. The horse lover isn’t just a character in the story. He is you, me, and everyone else. He stands for all of us when we become obsessed with something.
This sort of obsession has symptoms that can be easily recognised through the following:
The amount of time we devote to it. Like the horse lover wanting to be around horses all the time, we find that we only have time for the subject of our attachment… and nothing else.
The effort we invest into it. The wicker basket and the seashell container were valuable items. The horse lover used them because he wanted nothing but the best for his stallion. When we are in the grips of an obsession, we go all out in the same way, sparing no expense.
If left unchecked, the obsession will do more than just take up time and effort. It will also take over the mind. You engage in discussions with others about it, make elaborate plans for it, and think about it all the time. Eventually, its needs outweigh your own needs and the needs of your loved ones.
Sometimes there is an unwelcome intrusion into your world, like the fly landing on the horse. If your obsession is a hobby, perhaps the fly is a necessity to break away from it to take care of mundane chores. If your obsession is your work, perhaps the fly is a friend trying to talk to you about the lack of life balance. Whatever, the fly is that lands on the horse, you react to it with annoyance, and then anger.
Being annoyed and angry causes you to make mistakes. Perhaps you forgot about an important event, or ignore the signs of declining health, or snap at friends and loved ones who are worried about you. You lash out at the intrusion. You slap the fly.
Then, the horse kicks you. This kick may take the form of a serious health issue like hypertension or cardiovascular or an injury from a hobby-related incident, or a relationship broken beyond repair. Whatever form it takes, its a devastating blow.
As you suffer from the blow, you have to ask yourself one question: You may love the horse, but does the horse love you back? Does it look after you like you look after it? Does it care about you the way you care about it?
The answer is ‘no’ to the above, and the point is underscored in the story by the horse continuing to feed placidly. Your all-consuming attachment is not a person. It cannot love you, or care for you like a person can. The love and affection you shower upon it goes into a bottomless pit. When you get hurt, your obsession will never notice your pain. when you die, your obsession will never mourn your death. This is why you have to put everything in the proper perspective and make sure the horse does not become more important than the people in your life.
To live with meaning is to have the right focus in life. That focus cannot be obsessions, attachments of hobbies. It must be people, because the love you put into your personal relationships comes back to you many times over. This is the real message of the story. Never allow yourself to become the horse lover. Follow the Tao to become who you really want to be – the people lover.