“What is the essence of the Dharma?”

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.


6 thoughts on ““What is the essence of the Dharma?”

  1. “What is the essence of Buddhism?” As you correctly say, 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 obvious problem given the strictures and rituals in a Zen school, where you should know your time and place and ritual, the disciple concerned was asking this important question out of turn or jumping his queue in time or seniority.

    Perhaps, as an aside, I shall say a few words about this question. The starting point should be to establish what Buddhism is before you can deliberate on its essence. I think in the modern world beyond geographical, physical, philosophical and theological or spiritual boundaries, Buddhism should just be taken as a holistic health regime to discipline and control the mind and its five companion senses, to control the ‘monkey’ ‘ego’ in the ‘windmill’ of our mind and within the inner recesses of its consciousness and sub-consciousness, so that we can see our emotions, feelings, desires, lust and longing, covetousness, envy, jealousy, clinging, attachment et alia. Simply put it is about ‘mindfulness’ of what transpires in our mind and its consequential thoughts and deeds.

    Anyway to the matter at hand. Let us assume that I am correct that the disciple was speaking out of turn. The master replies simply: “The donkey’s not yet gone, and the horse arrives.”

    This is hardly a koan for serious Zen mind blogging senseless contemplation.

    May I proffer my humble configuring or construct of this poser?

    If I take it as spoken in a traditional Chinese context, it simply a ridicule or retort. It goes this way. This man is just a stupid uncultured donkey and yet he thinks he is already a cultured noble horse!

    It falls in the same class or category as sayings like – ‘one’s eyes are bigger than one’s stomach’, ‘feet too small and yet want to fill the shoes’ or ‘having a small head (brain) and yet want to wear a big hat’ (this last one is a common Cantonese expression).

    May I also suggest that with Zen schools, there is an underlying belief in ‘sudden (spiritual) awakening’ followed by gradual Bodhi practice or cultivation. This was what happened to the illiterate woodcutter when he heard the Diamond Sutra, who then became the 6th Patriarch. That is, discernment does not grow with tedious and comprehensive study or meditation, no matter how intensive these can be or are. In Theravada Buddhism there is an expression that goes along the lines that ‘when the mango is ripe it will fall’.

    A ‘donkey’ is never ready to run a ‘horse’ race!


    Vince Cheok

    • Thank you, Vince — helpful as always. I had thought of this, but you express it really well. For sure, what we have here is a donkey of overweening ambition asking questions too big for his boots. My own understanding of it actually leapt out immediately; the koan moved me almost to tears. It may have been the context of encountering it in Dogen, the greatest Zen philosopher, who I think would have understood it the way I did but seen further. It is a very wonderful perception playfully expressed.

    • A monk asked, ”What is the great meaning of our school?”
      Lingyun said, ”The donkey’s matters are unfinished, yet the horse’s affairs arrive.”
      The monk said, ”I don’t understand.”
      Lingyun said, ”Spectacles happening every night, but the essential spirit seldom met.”

      I don’t have the Chinese in front of me, but in Andy Ferguson’s book Zen’s Chinese Masters we have this version of it.

    • That was a present for you: Soko Morinaga’s Novice to Master, one of my favorite Zen books — the autobiography of a Rinzai master. It is one of the books I give to friends of sharp wit and deep intelligence. I’m very aware of my own donkeyhood, but here I stand munching grass, and I can only call things the way I see them.

      • You are so very stoic Zen in humility. Thanks for your gift. I shall treasure it because of the giver. Will read it for breakfast.

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