The question is asked of a relatively obscure Zen master named Ling Yun by one of his disciples. It is an earnest question, perhaps over-earnest, because it asks for something too big to settle in a verbal reply. The disciple is asking something like, “What is the essence of reality?” or “What is the truth about life?” or, taken more narrowly, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” — which are really non-questions because there is no straightforward proposition that can be given as an answer, and even if there were, how would we be able to understand it? The master replies simply: “The donkey’s not yet gone, and the horse arrives.” The disciple’s response is not recorded, probably because he had no clue how to respond.
I first encountered this koan in a footnote to Dogen’s fascicle Uji (The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, tr.Abe and Waddell, 2002, p.57) and was instantly moved. The Dogen context is a discussion of understanding, and how words and mind can hit the target at different times: sometimes your words strike the truth before your mind has quite realized what you’ve said, sometimes your mind intuitively reaches an understanding before the words can form. “The mind is a donkey, the word a horse…” A different view of the koan, from a more conventional Mahayana perspective, would be: laboring at your spiritual practice, you do not see that you are in fact already a buddha. This works as a reading but says nothing to a person who has no grasp of what it might be to have “arrived”; it is merely a restatement of an unhelpful doctrinaire slogan.
Master Ling Yun’s sentence speaks directly to everyday experience. Things pile up, situations hurtle after one another, with no pause, no time to close one neatly before beginning the next one. The paycheck hasn’t been issued, and the bills arrive; I haven’t begun to pack, and the furniture truck arrives; I haven’t said what I need to say to my loved one, and she dies; I need to give this assignment one more reading, and it’s class time already; I just got out all my winter clothes, and spring arrives; I have made all these plans, and I catch a really debilitating disease; I am doing well in my career, but my wife suddenly reveals that she is miserable. And so on. Life is about mistiming, and it never waits for us to be ready. We are never done with the previous situation when the next one pounces. Even when we think we are done, the situation isn’t necessarily done with us. As a Vietnamese (I think) proverb puts it: When you’ve slid safely down to the bottom of a steep slope, the rocks you’ve dislodged will continue to hit you in the back for a while. We’ve slid down many slopes, and the rocks keep coming. Our minds follow their own route and rhythm; the elements of our lives usually follow different beats, and they refuse to dance nicely. In every situation there is something we are not ready for,which may pop out now or later. In my days of diligent martial arts practice, I would never feel ready for a belt test, and when one was scheduled I would always quail before it and ask my sensei for more time because I didn’t feel ready. She responded by pointing out that we are nearly always not ready, and the real test is whether we can hold our stuff together when we are not ready.
This is even more true of our mental life. We do not dictate what thoughts and ideas enter our heads at any given moment, we have no control over whether we understand something or not. Thoughts pop in and then disappear somewhere, superseded by newer thoughts; there are glimmerings and comprehensions alternating with surmises and perplexities, none of which are governed by us. The river of thoughts crashes and rumbles through us, going from unknown source to unknown destination. We are not finished with one thought before another appears. Indeed, one reason we write is to follow a thought to something like a conclusion, in an attempt to slow down the rushing current. If this is so of our thoughts, how much more true is it of our emotions: the way attractions and aversions flow through us, our yearnings and regrets and disappointments, all moving in rapid succession through us, prompted by the stimuli of people and events, or by thoughts and imaginings. We usually don’t keep track of the emotional river, and prefer not to question it. We are even often unaware of what we are actually feeling and have a hard time “reading” important emotions and how they change over time. Here too the moments and episodes oust each other, leaving no leisure to conclude what’s past let alone prepare for what’s coming.
The moments don’t seem to have a causal relation to one another. When I am planning to do some writing in the evening but instead have to take care of a sick child, the conditional chains behind my urge to write and my child’s illness are unrelated and cannot be assimilated into each other: they collide, jostle, force each other out. The succession of events, like the succession of thoughts and emotions, is fundamentally mysterious. Our mistake is to believe that they make sense and that we are in charge, either directly or by proxy, and this both cuts us off from seeing the mystery and frustrates, demoralizes us. The donkey’s not yet gone and the horse arrives is a teaching that offers consolation and inspires a relaxed receptivity towards the unrelenting onslaught of inner and outer events. Life is just like this: no need to goad the donkey to move or throw stones at the horse to slow it down, because on a deeper level the donkey is always too slow and the horse too fast.