Buddha's Royal Horse
When Prince Siddartha set out from the royal palace about 2,500 years ago on a journey that changed his life and changed the world, legend says he began that journey on the back of the most valuable horse in his father’s kingdom: Kanthaka, a magnificent white stallion.
In truth, no one really knows the details of the early life of the privileged prince who gave up his wealth and family in order to spend his life searching for truth as The Enlighted One, the Buddha. But the role of Kanthaka in his story illustrates the reverence, respect and dependence between horse and human that has endured for centuries.
Legend says that Siddhartha and Kanthaka were born on the same day. Kanthaka appears in the story of the Buddha when Siddhartha married his bride, Princess Yasodhara. A bridegroom had to prove his worth as a warrior, able to ride into battle, wield a sword, and excel in mounted archery. Mounted on Kanthaka, Siddartha bested his opponents in contests proving his superior skills as a horseman and a fighter, and from then on Kanthaka was his favorite horse.
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Fearing that his son Siddhartha would choose to become a monk instead of a ruler, King Suddhodana surrounded him with great wealth and comfort, like a bird in a gilded cage, shielded from the realities of the world. But Siddartha had four visions, told as journeys outside the palace, with his servant Channa in a chariot pulled by Kanthaka. (See how handy it is to train your horse to drive as well as ride?)
While outside the palace walls, Siddartha witnessed what had previously been hidden from him: on the first journey, old age; on the second, disease; on the third, death. For the first time, he learned that these conditions of life were inevitable, that we all get old and die, and it made him sad. Then he had a fourth vision or journey, during which he saw a monk living an ascetic life of peace. This monk gave Siddartha hope, and he decided to renounce his exalted future as a mighty king, and instead follow the path of a monk in order to seek a spiritual solution to human suffering.
Leaving behind his wife, his baby son, and a life of luxury, Siddartha escaped the palace riding on Kanthaka. When he got off his horse for the last time to continue his life’s journey on foot, Kanthaka then died of a broken heart.
Siddartha parting from Kanthaka
Usually it is we humans who outlive our horses, and suffer the broken hearts when we are parted from them by death. But the good news is, Kanthaka was reincarnated as an enlightened follower of Buddha, so they were united again. The horse who had accompanied his master through all the major moments of his early life was considered so important that he achieved equality with humans by becoming human himself.
Whatever our religion or personal beliefs, we have to remember that the horses in our lives deserve empathy, respect and kindness. They have not chosen to live with us, yet it is astounding what they will do for us when we ask them.
Kanthaka is a reminder that horses will break their hearts for us.
In exchange for taking their freedom to live naturally in the wild and instead be bound by fences and bridles, we owe our horses at the very least kindness and understanding, and at the most our very best efforts to understand their needs and appreciate their efforts on our behalf.
In Buddhism horses represent energy and effort in the seeking of dharma, the “universal truth.” To be able to gallop on the back of a horse is to share his speed and power. To just be with a horse is to share his giving heart.
"Song of the Galloping Horse of a Yogi"
In the mountain hermitage which is my body,
In the temple of my breast,
At the summit of the triangle of my heart,
The horse which is my mind flies like the wind.
He gallops on the plains of great bliss.
If he persists, he will attain the rank of a victorious Buddha.
Going backward, he cuts the root of samsara.
Going forward he reaches the high land of buddhahood.
Astride such a horse, one attains the highest illumination.
(Milarepa, translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa)
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