The Old Man and His Horse

A Story About Judgment Making

The Foolishness of Making Judgments

The following story is said to have happened in the days of Lao Tzu in China (551-479 BC). I have forgotten where I came upon it, possibly from some writings by Rajneesh. I was so impressed with the story’s clear message that I made a written copy, although perhaps not a perfectly verbatim one. It is a superb example of the uselessness of making judgments, clearly pointing out that they contain no real "truth" or valuable content, even though we like to see them as valuable and use them to direct our subsequent thoughts and actions.

The Old Man and His Horse
In a little village there lived an old man who was very poor, but even in his abject poverty, kings were jealous of him because he had a sleek and beautiful white horse which no one could match. The horse was stunning beyond compare. Kings and noblemen offered fabulous sums of money for the horse, but the old man would decline by saying, "This horse is not a horse to me, but rather a good friend and close companion. How can you sell a friend, something that is part of yourself?" The old man was very poor, but he never sold the horse, his trusted companion and friend.

One morning, it was discovered that the horse was not in the stable. The whole village gathered, and they said, "You are a foolish old man! We all knew that someday such a fine horse would be stolen. You would have been better off if you had sold it when you had the chance. What a horrible mistake you have made! What a misfortune!" But the old man said, "Do not judge what you do not know. Simply say that the horse is not in the stable. This is the only fact which appears to be known. Everything else is just a judgment. Whether it is a misfortune or a blessing none of us know, because all we see and know is just a fragment of the whole story. Who knows what is going to happen?"

The villagers laughed uproariously at the old man. They had always known that he was a little bit crazy, and that they were right. Then, after a couple of weeks, suddenly one night the horse returned. He had not been stolen at all. He had merely escaped temporarily into the wild. Not only that, he brought a dozen wild horses back with him, all of which stood alongside him in the stable. Again the townspeople gathered and they proclaimed, "Old man, you were right. This was not a misfortune, it has indeed proved to be a great blessing." The old man retorted, "Again you are going too far by judging. Just say that the horse is back. Who knows whether it is a blessing or not? It is only a fragment of the whole story. If you read just a single word in a sentence, how can you judge the whole book?" The villagers were afraid to say much, but inside they were smugly confident and knew that the old man was wrong. Many beautiful horses had miraculously come to him without effort, and they declared amongst themselves that this must be a blessing.

The old man had an only son who started to train the wild horses. After only one week of training, he fell from a horse and his legs were both broken. The townspeople gathered once again, and again they judged and judged. They said, "Again you are proved to be right! It was a misfortune. Your only son has broken and lost the use of his legs. In your old age he was your only support. Now you are poorer and worse off than ever before." The old man said, "You are obsessed with having to make judgments. Stop judging! Just say that my son has broken his legs. Nobody knows whether this is a misfortune or a blessing. Life comes in fragments, one moment after another, nothing more is given to you."

Then something quite unexpected happened. After a few weeks the country went to war and all the young men of the town were forcibly taken for military service. Only the old man’s son was left behind, because he was crippled and unable to walk. The whole town was crying and weeping because everyone knew it was a losing battle, and they were certain that most of the young people would never return. They gathered around the old man and said, "You were right. This has proved a blessing. Maybe your son is crippled, but he is still alive and with you. Our sons are gone forever." The old man again said, "Stop judging. You go on and on judging everything. Nobody knows! Only say that your sons have been forced to enter into the military and that my son has not. Nobody knows whether it is a blessing or a misfortune."

It should be obvious that judgments are merely a choice regarding some aspect of a perceived happening, an idea formed out of a frozen, disconnected moment of time. They represent a fragment of a perceived story that has been made rigid and into some kind of "truth," satisfying ideas and beliefs already in place. For anyone who is genuinely willing to look and feel carefully, it should be obvious that judgments have no "real" meaning or correctness. As the story of the old man amply demonstrates, they are often countermanding, too, one judgment calling for the opposite action, driving your life back and forth without any long term benefit.

April 19, 1999