Where in this world does one find
Someone restrained by conscience,
Who knows little of blame,
As a good horse knows little of the whip?
Like a good horse alert to the whip,
Be ardent and alarmed*.
With faith, virtue, effort,
Concentration and discernment,
Accomplished in knowledge and good conduct,
You will leave this great suffering behind. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
(Gil’s note) *Saṃvega in Pali describes a deep religious stirring or agitation of the heart in the face of the magnitude of the world’s suffering.
With respect to the phrase “alert to the whip” the following classic explanation is offered:
In the Agama [Chinese sutta], 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. (from https://dogeninstitute.wordpress.com/tag/four-horses/)
These verses will arouse a sense of urgency in the sensitive reader or hearer, with respect to our own inevitable death and also the importance of our thoughts, words, and deeds right now. They point out that it’s critical that we be mindful, ethical in our behavior, and maintain consistent effort in the direction of the wholesome. If we don’t have a sense of direction, we may wander around randomly, being led towards or repelled by whatever or whomever we encounter.
It may not be obvious to everyone that our human lives are time-limited and that therefore our responsibilities cannot be postponed. We are capable of living in the delusion that if we don’t think about the fact of impermanence then we can happily live in the fantasy of a stable and unchanging world. However, before long we are confronted by unpleasant realities, and our responses are revealing. Did we think that dukkha was not real? That our words and actions didn’t have consequences for us and others? Did we convince ourselves that we deserved and would have an untroubled life? If so, then we are like the fourth horse, who requires the strongest reminder that impermanence and dukkha are real.
If we live more within the scope of reality where good and bad things happen with apparent randomness all the time, then we are more like the second or third horses. If we are alert to the danger of creating negative results through our words and deeds, knowing that actions of body, speech, and mind have consequences and that the only arena of control we have is our own actions, we will be like the first horse, “restrained by conscience and knowing little of blame.”