The Taoist Farmer and his Horse

This babies a long one, practically a book by today’s standards. And it’s about ancient wisdom to boot. But if you hang in there, you might just learn something.

Once there was an old man who lived with his son on a small farm near a tiny village. Although poor, the old man was envied by all in the village, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before ─ such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.

People often made fabulous offers for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a person? How could you sell a friend?” Although a very poor man and the temptation was great, he never sold the horse.

One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable. All the villagers came to see him. “You old fool, you have no wisdom at all” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. We can only say the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people scoffed, “Don’t make us out to be fools old man! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse long ago and he and his son could have lived comfortably off the money. But instead, he stayed a poor old man, still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest to  sell. He and his son lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had simply run into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought half a dozen wild horses with him. Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. You are so fortunate. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that half a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. How can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is one fragment! How can you say this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t know.”

“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another. But down deep, they knew he was wrong. They all agreed it was a blessing. Six wild horses had returned. With a little work, the animals could be broken, trained and sold, and the woodcutter and his son would be rich.

With the approval of the old man, the son began to break the wild horses. After several days of working with the horses, the son fell from one of them and broke both his legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man to cast their judgments.

“You were right old man,” they said. “This proves you were right. The horses were not a blessing after all. They were a curse. Your only son has now broken both his legs, and in your old age not only do you have no one to help, you now have to take care of your son. Now you are poorer than ever. You must admit this is a curse!”

The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”

It so happened that a few weeks later the country was drawn into war against a neighboring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken. The enemy was strong, and the war would most certainly be a losing struggle. There was little chance the young men would return. They would never see their sons again.

“You were right, old man,” They wept. “God knows you were right. This proves that your son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you and he will heal. Our sons are gone forever.”

The old man spoke again. “It is impossible to talk with you people. You always draw conclusions.

“Once again; no one knows if this is a blessing or a curse. You can say only this: Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one is wise enough to know what the outcome will be. Only God can know this.”


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