Today we find the Buddha instructing Kesi, the horse trainer. The Buddha is very good at meeting his students where they are, and of making use of their existing wisdom. In this case he begins by asking Kesi how he trains and disciplines horses as a part of his business.
Kesi replies that it depends on the horse, and to what the horse responds to best. Some horses he trains gently, some sternly, and some both gently and sternly. The Buddha asks what he does with those horses who respond to none of these methods of training, and Kesi replies that he kills them, so they don’t bring disgrace to his teacher’s guild.
The Buddha says that it’s the same with training people. When it comes to spiritual instruction, some people respond best to a gentle method, some only a stern teacher, and some to a mixture of stern and gentle (which are you?).
When Kesi asks the Buddha what is done when someone won’t respond to either gentle or stern training, this is what he says:
If a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then I kill him, Kesi.
But it’s not proper for our Blessed One to take life! And yet the Blessed One just said, ‘I kill him, Kesi.’
It is true, Kesi, that it’s not proper for a Tathagata to take life. But if a tamable person doesn’t submit either to a mild training or to a harsh training or to a mild & harsh training, then the Tathagata doesn’t regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing. His knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don’t regard him as being worth speaking to or admonishing. This is what it means to be totally destroyed in the Doctrine & Discipline, when the Tathagata doesn’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing, and one’s knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing.
Yes, lord, wouldn’t one be totally destroyed if the Tathagata doesn’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing, and one’s knowledgeable fellows in the holy life don’t regard one as being worth speaking to or admonishing!
I think that the Buddha is being very practical here. If someone has asked us for help, we offer them help, and we do our very best to get our point across. We try different things, and we are patient. After some time, if this person refuses or is unable to listen, then it isn’t in anyone’s best interest to continue. Like Kesi, we would be putting energy into flogging a dead horse.Kesi seems to identify with how it might feel for a student when the Buddha and his colleagues stop instructing or admonishing him. He would be ‘totally destroyed’ (Bhikkhu Bodhi has ‘well slain’). Is this intended as a punishment for the student? I don’t think so. The Buddha doesn’t seem to be in the habit of punishing people – karma does this for him. I prefer to think that it is merely a pragmatic way of dealing with these cases, releasing his own and his fellow’s energies to be spent in more productive places. I like to imagine that the Buddha releases these students with love.
Who knows – this ‘killing off’ could also double up as a last-resort way of making the student teachable. Sometimes in my own life I have needed to be shocked into seeing that I wasn’t paying attention, and I have also seen others needing to reach a kind of ‘rock bottom’ before cracking open and becoming teachable.
This sutta is helpful for me as I consider the various people in my life who have approached me for help. This includes my clients, my mentees and my congregation both here locally and further afield. My tendency is to spend too long offering my attention or my advice to people who are not in a place where they can receive it. I think for me this is both motivated from a selfless place (I care about them, and I want them to receive something that will help them) and a selfish place (I need them to be ‘good students’ so I can feel like a ‘good teacher’). Maybe they’ve found some better teachings elsewhere – excellent. Maybe it’s just too risky for them to take on new ideas or practices – in which case they are correct to wait. I can wish them well without feeling like either of us have ‘failed’.
If any of these people reappear in my life and ask for my time or attention, I would be delighted to welcome them back. Until then, the Buddha tells me it would be better for me to focus my attention on those who are, for whatever reason, open.
How is this teaching relevant to your own life?
Photo from Pexels.com with gratitude
“Kesi Sutta: To Kesi the Horsetrainer” (AN 4.111), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.111.than.html