Poem on degrees of responsiveness
|駟の馬||Yotsu no uma|
|四の車に||yotsu no kuruma ni||Those who do not ride on|
|乗らぬ人||noranu hito||the four horses and|
|真の道を||makoto no michi wo||the four carriages,|
|いかでしらまし||ikade shiramashi||how could they know the true Way?|
In Shobogenzo Shime (Four Horses), Dogen Zenji quotes the teachings about the four kinds of horses from the Agama and the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra.
In the Agama, the Buddha taught monks that there are four kinds of horses. The first kind is most sharp-witted, startled when it sees the shadow of the whip, and understands what the rider wants. The second kind is startled when the whip touches its hair. The third kind is surprised after the whip touches its flesh. The fourth kind wakes up only after [the whip] has penetrated to the bone. 
Then the Buddha explained that the first horse is like the person who realizes impermanence when he hears that someone in another village died; the second horse is like the person who sees impermanence when he hears that someone in his village died; the third horse is like the person who realizes impermanence when his parent dies; the fourth horse is like person who doesn’t realize impermanence until he faces his own death.
We all see the reality of impermanence and various kinds of sufferings in human life, but we often do not arouse bodhi-mind and ride on the carriages of the Dharma.
According to the Mahayana Parinirvna Sutra, the first horse is like the person who accepts the Buddha’s teaching when he hears of [the suffering of] birth; the second horse is like the person who accepts the Buddha’s teaching when he hears of birth and aging; the third horse is like the person who accepts the Buddha’s teaching when he hears of birth, aging and sickness; the forth horse is like the person who accepts the Buddha’s teaching when he hears of birth, aging, sickness, and death.
Riding on four horses means to see impermanence and realize the suffering of life, to accept the Buddha’s teachings and arouse the bodhi-mind.
The four carriages refer to the vehicles of sheep/sravaka, of deer/pratyekabuddha, of ox/bodhisattva, and of great white ox/one Buddha vehicle, that appear in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Riding on the four carriages means to study and practice any teachings or traditions of Buddhism. Dogen does not exclude the first two or three vehicles and say only the last one is right.
We all see the reality of impermanence and various kinds of sufferings in human life, but we often do not arouse bodhi-mind and ride on the carriages of the Dharma. Then how can we know the true Buddha Way?
When Sawaki Roshi was eight years old, one day a middle-aged man died of a stroke in a prostitute’s room. He saw the dead man in bed with his wife beside him, crying, “Why did you die in a place like this, of all places?” This scene stunned Sawaki Roshi into a deep appreciation of impermanence and the impossibility of keeping secrets. Even though his parents and his uncle who adopted him had died before this experience, Sawaki Roshi hadn’t felt impermanence so intensely. The whip of this experience penetrated to his bone. Later he escaped from his step-parents’ home and became a monk.
Once, after Sawaki Roshi became a well-known master, he was invited to give a talk for a group of priests near his home-town. He talked about his experience of seeing impermanence when he was eight years old. One of the priests in the group found that several decades ago, one of his temple’s family members died like that. At the time, the strict abbot of the temple got angry about how he died, did not give the person the dharma name. When Sawaki Roshi heard that, he wrote the current abbot of the temple that the person was a great teacher for him who saved him and made him become a monk, and asked the priest to give the person a dharma name.
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Translation and commentary by Shohaku Okumura Roshi
 Nishijima & Cross’s translation is in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, book 4, p.128.
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