The Uncommunicative Farmer’s Horse


In today’s story we meet a farmer, his son and their horse. It’s a story about good and bad and maybe. It could be 2000 years old. First my ex-confirmands try to make sense of this parable, then it’s my turn. The path will lead us to some yummy recipes.

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

The story about the “Farmer and his Horse” as it is often called in the Internet is another of those taoist parables, which are labelled “Zen” now. Like “The Empty Boat” it is even older than Zen itself.

Buddhism is not a monolithical set of rules, it is just as diverse as Christianity is, too. When it arrived in China, it adapted many thoughts and stories from taoism. That changed it to a school that’s called Chan in China, Thien in Vietnam, Seon in Korea or Zen in Japan.

There are many schools that don’t care about taoism at all. Buddhism in Tibet or in Thailand is very different from the practices we all know from Japanese temples. A Christian analogy would be the differences between puritanism and greek orthodoxy – but that’s not very accurate.

Zen got so influential in Northern America and Europe, that the Western view of taoist concepts already changes buddhism back in the East. It’s very fascinating to watch.

So, “The Farmer and his Horse” is in the Top Five of popular Zen stories on the internet, even if it’s taoist.

Let’s design the stage: Imagine medieval China far out in the countryside. And I mean their middle ages, not the European ones. We were still battling the Roman Empire.

Back to the little village: No running water, no electricity, no smartphones.

Wait – let’s keep the smartphones. They could be helpful for storytelling!

There was this poor farmer, 2000 years ago. Hm. Why do farmers always have to be poor in stories? That’s too stereotypical! Our farmer has an income slightly above average, okay?

And let’s call him Sam. Because he looks exactly like an asian version of Sam Elliott in “Big Lebowski”. Without the Stetson.

Now, this farmer is doing so well because his son helps him with the daily farming stuff. Let’s call the son Samson. That’s easy to remember.

And they have a horse. This horse proved to be extremely useful, especially when the farming stuff had something to do with pulling the plough. The horse’s name is Samhorse.

One morning, when Sam and Samson went to the stable to pay Samhorse a visit, the last-mentioned life form was nowhere to be found. Samson thought: “Samhorse has run away!”.

And Samhorse thought: “Time for a day off.”

This little horse adventure lead to the fact that Samhorse had to be replaced by Samson, which was quite uneffective. Hence the acquisition of horsepower in form of a horse before.

Sams mobile phone beeped. It was a whatsapp notification from his neighbor, let’s call him Annoy. That sounds Chinese somehow and describes his main character trait. Annoy wrote: “I’ve heard about your bad luck. I can’t describe in words how deeply I am shattered by this blow of fate you have to endure. I guess you feel terrible! This is a catastrophe, isn’t it?”

To which Sam answered: “Maybe.”

The next morning Samhorse was standing in the stable again. Relaxed and happy. And he had brought seven horse friends with him he had met in one of the bars that horses use to frequent on their vacations. Sam and Samson were now in posession of eight horses. If you take 2000 years of inflation into consideration, they would be wealthy by today’s standards.

Sams mobile phone beeped. It was Annoy. He wrote: “I heard about how the Gods blessed you! Congratulations on your great fortune! You are happy now, aren’t you?”

To which Sam answered: “Maybe.”

Some of Samhorse’s friends were not tamed. And they behaved very rude. So Samson, who was a part time cowboy, tried his best to educate them the next day. But he was thrown, landed badly and broke his right leg. Femur, knee cap, fibula. 2000 years ago the healing of fractures lasted three months.

Sams mobile phone beeped. It was Annoy. He wrote: “And again you were struck by the evil lightning of the grudging divine entities! This will be the end of all your farming stuff and things! You must be depressed! I can relate! Another catastrophe! Don’t you think?”

To which Sam answered: “Maybe.”

It surely developed to be a very eventful week, when – next morning – the Army came to the little town. They were here to conscript the younger men to fight in a war. The local warlord had planned to win this by using billions of toothpicks. It is not passed on by history how his royal advisor was put to death after the devastating defeat. All he had to say was: “It seemed to be very heroic plan at the time it was forged.”

Anyhow. When the soldier in charge took a look at Samson, he was baffled by the complexity of all the bandages around his left leg. Yes, I know: His right leg was broken, but Traditional Chinese Medicine was not developed yet. Samson had not to become a soldier. It seems you can’t hadle toothpicks on one leg only.

That’s good news: He could help with farming stuff again in three months.

Which, 2000 years ago, was considered a much better fate in comparison to dying.

Sams mobile phone beeped. Annoy annoyed again. “Praise the Gods, who seem to have a rather funny understanding of justice. They favored you again, though you have an income distinctly above average already. Your son will stay home and can help you with all the farming stuff! You lucky bastard! You must be the happiest person in your part of the village! Aren’t you?”

To which Sam answered: “Maybe.”

That’s all. No showdown. That’s the whole story.

Years ago I gave a more traditional version of this story to my confirmands. Confirmands here in Germany are about thirteen or fourteen years old.

This is a very interesting age, I think. They are growing up to be adults somehow someday, but there is still some wisdom from childhood left, so us old men and women can learn a lot, if we are willing to listen.

My confirmands were not really abuzz about the story. Mostly they missed a proper ending. In the Hollywood kind of way, I presume. But they had some interesting thoughts to share.

Number one said: “God plans our live. We can not understand his purpose, so we have to be patient. In the end, everything turns out good!”

That seems like a very good answer. Things turned out to be quite positive for Sam. But things do not always turn out good in the end. Sometimes even the good stuff is a problem. Look at all the people who won millions in the lottery. More than 70% of all them end up going broke.

Number two said: “Things are not what they look like. There’s no need to worry, because bad things and good things level out in the long run. Don’t worry, just be happy!”

Another good answer. I like the Bobby McFerrin reference. But, even for the lottery winners, things don’t level out. Justice has no scale. And she is not blindfolded. Some people are lucky, others have to play with a shitty set of cards.

Number three said: “The farmer thinks, there’s no free will. Nothing he can do. Because there’s nothing he can do, no plan of action for him, he has numbed down to complete passiveness. He has resigned to fate. I hate this story.”

Good point! That’s something European conquerors said about Asia since the day of Alexander the Great. But is the farmer numbed? When he answers his annoying neighbor, he doesn’t write: “I don’t care.” His answer is “Maybe.” May things turn out good, maybe not. That’s a difference, isn’t it?

Number four said: “The farmer is not an optimist, neither is he a pessimist. He is standing exactly in the middle of these extremes. He is simply a realist! That’s the best way to live. I wish, I could be as relaxed as the farmer!”

That’s a lot of insight for a thirteen year old human being. But this optimist and pessimist dichotomy is a little constructed, if you ask me. Things tend to be not as good as we hope for and not as bad as we fear. You could be an optimist and a pessimist at the same time. Hope and fear can coexist. There is no line in the middle anyone can stand on. Or dance on. I think, this is not really the point of this story.

Number five said: “I think the farmer is overwhelmed. Because things happen so fast, he can not say, what he thinks about it. He has no time to make a judgment. This must make him more unhappy than happy.”

This confirmand tried to imagine what the farmer must have felt. That’s a very empathetic response. No adult would have said that. That’s the reason you have to take people in their puberty seriously. And maybe this answer is the right one. Maybe I don’t understand this story. But I think it’s about something different than distress.

And then, finally, number six said: “I think the farmer doesn’t like to talk about his feelings with his annoying neighbour. That’s all. If you talk too much, then your conversation partner shuts up and then he hopes that you just stop to talk. Or he just leaves. Happens to me a lot!”

Yet again: This much self reclection after only thirteen years on the planet! And even when this interpretation is somehow very unsatisfactory, I believe this is exactly what happens in many partnerships. Communication is seldomly distributed in fair shares.

Thank you, my dear confirmands. We learned a lot from you!

Let me have a try in interpreting the story of Sam, Samson and Samhorse myself.

It’s a story about good and bad, isn’t it? Good events turn out to have bad consequences. And bad events are not bad in the long run.

The farmer seems to be the wise man in this story. Not Samson and dead certain not Annoy.

So “Maybe” has to be the wise response to the good things and the bad things. But why?

What is “good”? What is “bad”?

Are there lists on Wikipedia to look up? Or judges to help us confused ones through our lives?

Or – maybe – is bad and good different for everyone?

I had some terrible accidents in my life. I was even declared dead once, which turned out to be a premature diagnosis. These events changed my life. though they had consequences: I am almost blind in one eye, almost deaf in one ear and I think “Revolver” is the best Beatles album.

But all these experiences made me what I am. It’s not that I am not happy all the time, just because I survived, decades ago. But I am quite used to live with myself. I wouldn’t be me without those experiences. I can not imagine my life without them. These accidents were not good. And they were not bad either.

They just happened.

We use “good” and “bad” to give us orientation. And this judgement happens very fast. It’s only milliseconds before we sort the lentils. The good ones go into the pot, the bad ones go into your crop.

We do not think about it, we simply react.

Maybe this is just a reflex, as old as animal existence. A prehistoric part of our brain. Seems plausible!

What’s that? Over in the bushes? Is it food or is it a predator? Is it good or bad? Fight or flight?

But food is not good per se. And it is not bad per se.

It’s just food. It’s just a predator.

It’s not bad or good, when Samhorse takes a day off with his buddies. That happens.

He had no plan to bring his buddies back to the farm to do farm stuff. That happened, too.

It is not bad or good, when Samson breaks his right leg. That happens.

He had no plan to get injured, so he could avoid fighting with tooth picks. That happened, too.

The events in your life are not good and they are not bad.

They have no intention being bad or being good. They happen.

You think of them as good or bad. But that is only you judging. Your prehistoric mind.

You have to deal with them regardless of what your judgement is.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like your judging doesn’t matter.

If you think of everything as good, your lifespan will be significantly under average.

“What? The fish is six month behind expiry? Doesn’t matter. It’s good!”

And if you think of everything as bad, you will end up anxious, alone and miserable.

That’s a way to die, too.

It’s useful to detect the moment you judge.

You can be there and observe the oldest parts of our brain judging.

If you watch this process and know that things take place in your life and that you can handle them as they happen and in the way they happen, then you will be one giant step closer to inner peace.

Another side effect: You will get more choices.

You do judge. I do. You seperate events in your life in good or bad. You can’t do anything against it.
But you can gain distance from that mechanism – especially if you know that things just happen without being good or bad. They become good or bad, but only in your mind!

If life gives you lemons, that’s not good or bad. It’s. just. lemons.

It’s true, you can now make lemonade. Especially if you believe getting lemons from life is bad.

Which, oddly enough, seems to be the assumption in this saying.

If life gives you lemons, that’s not good or bad. Don’t judge.

Sure, there’s lemonade. One option.

But there are countless other possibilities! Lemon curry comes to mind. A lemon tart with raspberries would be nice. Lemon pudding is dainty, too. Or lemon marmelade, with zests. Or lemon curd truffle, yummy! Or a fresh salad with a lemon vinaigrette. Or you put the lemon in olive oil. I’m getting hungry here!

If you don’t take your judgements too serious, there are lot of options how to handle events, in the moment they happen to you.

And, take an advice from me: If life gives you lemons, just say “Thank you”.

And give life my best regards!

Because, in the end, it’s about life. Life itself!