Mr. Sei’s Horse: A Cautionary Tale about Quick Judgments

There’s an old Zen story I heard a little while ago, and I was immediately struck by it. The origin isn’t exactly clear — it’s attributed to Gerry Shishin Wick. It goes something like this:

Mr. Sei lived in a small, poor village. He owned a horse and was one of the wealthiest members of the village. His neighbors used to come to him and tell him how lucky he was to have that horse because he could plow much more field and have a larger income and take better care of his family. Mr. Sei was a very wise man so he didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head.

One day, the horse ran away and his neighbors come and told him how unlucky he is that his horse had run away. Again Mr. Sei nodded his head.

Then the horse returned and a second horse was following. Now Mr. Sei had two horses. The neighbors came and said, “How lucky you are that your horse ran away and came back with an extra horse! Now you have two horses!”

Again Mr. Sei just nodded his head.

The next season, Mr. Sei’s son was plowing the field with the second horse and had an accident. He broke his leg.

The neighbors rushed over again. “How unlucky he is that he had that second horse, otherwise his son never would have broken his leg and now he can’t help him in the fields.”

Again, Mr. Sei just nodded.

Within a few weeks, war erupted in the province, and the lords were conscripting all of the young men to fight. Mr. Sei’s son had a broken leg, so he didn’t have to go into battle.

The neighbors came again and told Mr. Sei how lucky he is that his son broke his leg.

This story has no end and continues today.

I love this story. It is a simple illustration of how utterly silly quick judgments tend to be. What we think is terrible right now just might — in due time — turn into an advantage, or at least something inconsequential overall.

If we take a cue from Mr. Sei, we can avoid the unnecessary hand-wringing and lamenting that cause us so much stress and anxiety. Instead, we can withhold our judgment for bit — wait for things to pan out, for the dust to settle. If we can do that, we might find that our worry, stress, and lamentation was completely unfounded.

It’s hard to be like Mr. Sei. But I’d like to think that the payoff is worth whatever work it takes.

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