In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. “In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.
“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.
“If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.
Suzuki’s parable of the four horses has haunted me ever since I first heard it. For one this, it poses a clear challenge for the person with exceptional talent: to achieve his or her full potential, this person will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability. The parable has made me realize that if I’m the first or second horse as an instructor of fast learners, I’m the third or fourth horse as an instructor of slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere and dedicate my efforts to bringing along every Brewster and Edmundson who shows up at our aikido school, I’ll someday know this aspect of instructing all the way to the marrow of my bones.
So when you look for your instructor, in whatever skill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when you discover one who pursues maximum performance. But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisite attention to the slowest student on the mat.
Leonard, George. “Mastery. The Keys To Success And Long Term Fulfillment.” (1992).