Taming the Wild Horse

An Annotated Translation of the Daoist Horse Training Pictures

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Louis Komjathy
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Most popular introductions to Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism will mention the so-called “Ox-herding pictures” and accompanying poems. These pictures and poems offer a stimulating and accessible visualization of the contemplative path that exemplifies the directness for which Chan has become so famous in the West. Less well-known, however, is the Daoist version of these pictures, which feature wild horses instead of oxen. In his wonderful new book, Louis Komjathy provides us with, as the subtitle says, “an annotated translation and study” of these documents.

After a moving acknowledgements section in which Komjathy details his personal investments in the present work as a “return to poetry,” the first essay of the introductory section historically contextualizes the work by giving a biography of its author (most likely the Quanzhen Daoist monk Gao Daokuan [1195-1277 CE]), and by detailing the contemplative practices he would most likely have been familiar with. In the process, Komjathy also discusses the aforementioned Ox-herding poems, which thus far have not yet been the subject of sustained critical attention. He concludes the introduction with a useful but very technical systematization of levels of Daoist contemplation.

Whereas this first introductory essay is a classic feature of this type of book, the second one constitutes a highly original and stimulating thought piece. Titled “Of Stallions, Steppes, and Stables,” the chapter uses the horse-taming pictures and poems to reflect on thinking about animals, in part drawing on contemporary scholarship in animal studies and ecocriticism. Komjathy calls his method here “seeing through horses,” which includes explicating horses as anthropomorphized constructs, but also using horses as a lens to consider Daoist contemplation as a whole. Thematically, the essay is divided into three parts: the first contains a discussion of the different functions words like “wild,” “domesticated,” and “feral” have in Chinese Daoist discussions. Then, Komjathy considers how animals have been rhetorically used in the Chinese tradition in general and Daoism specifically, and what symbolic values horses have within this tradition. This section is full of fascinating comparative insights, of which I give just one example here: “If Chan Buddhists saw themselves as ‘beasts of burden,’ [oxen] toiling in the fields for the benefit of Buddhism and the larger Chinese society, working selflessly and relentlessly for the enlightenment of all beings, perhaps these medieval Daoists saw themselves as equestrian animals, as regal and dignified mounts. They were, or they should be, the horses, a powerful presence at the foundation of Chinese society” (41). The essay concludes by arguing that the horse poems and pictures cannot be fully understood without an experiential component. Komjathy records his own reflections (one could call it field work) on being present with living and breathing horses.

The translations themselves, of both poems and commentary, are simple yet elegant. They are followed by an “exegesis” that attempts to tease out the possible meanings of these enigmatic texts. Though the exegesis is to be lauded for its attempt to explicate these poems in less technical language, this attempt is complicated by Komjathy’s choice not to vary sentence structure in his own expository prose, therefore making his exegesis more challenging to read than it should be.

Despite this minor point of stylistic criticism, this book is a beautiful and original contribution not only to Daoist studies, but also to animal studies, a field that rarely ventures so far east and so far back into the past. This interdisciplinarity should make it of interest to anyone interested in poetry, contemplative practice, and human-animal relationships. That the book is richly illustrated and full of clarifying tables only further enhances its accessibility and attractiveness to a non-expert audience.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben van Overmeire is Flanders Reserach Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Ghent University.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Louis Komjathy is associate professor of Chinese religions and comparative religious studies at the University of San Diego. He is the author of Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-transformation in Early Quanzhen Daoism (2007), The Way of Complete Perfection: A Quanzhen Daoist Anthology (2013), The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction (2013), and Daoism: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014), and the editor of Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook on Meditation and Contemplative Prayer (2015).


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