A Parable – Zen story


Last evening, I was browsing a book called ‘101 Zen Stories‘ and my eye was caught by a very short parable. It goes like this:

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

I turned the page believing that the story would progress, however as all Zen tales it had a surprise; it was over. I thought “What is the meaning of this fable?”, yet I didn’t reflect much on it and I kept on turning the pages.

A couple of hours later, an impulse make me start reading ‘A Confession’┬áby Tolstoy when I ended up on the same Eastern story! This time I knew I shouldn’t let this synchronicity vanish, I had to think the story through. Even though there cannot be any intellectual interpretation of the Zen stories and Koans, I could not help myself from writing my thoughts on it.

So, I believe that the story is talking about our ordinary lives. We all pass from the same stages; we are born, live, and die.

The tiger below could represent the inevitable, the death that we cannot escape from. We can let the vine go and die before our time, or we can stick to it a bit longer. Meanwhile, the vice is gnawed away by the white and black mice, as our given time is fleeting little by little with each day and night. We all have felt helpless in the face of the passing time and most of us fight with it internally. How is it different from struggling to move upwards the vine only to be eaten by the tiger of our adversities?

The interesting part of the story is the man’s action. He can choose to let the vine go, to move upwards, or just hang there waiting in vain – all options lead to death though. Realising his situation, he releases his grasping, now holding the vine only partially with one hand. He is aware of the necessary clinging of human life and that he cannot cut away his attachments totally. Taking the Buddhist Middle Way, he plucks the strawberry with the other hand and tastes it, probably for the last time.

In the last sentence of this Zen story, we see that regardless of the man’s fatal future he is present and enjoys the sweetness of whatever happened to be close to him. Just think, how many of us would be able find the sweet in our bitter calamities?

There are always strawberries next to us, sometimes we see them, sometimes not, especially in difficult times. Only if we open our eyes to the present moment we are able to perceive how lucky we are for being here right now. Having said that, I wonder about the importance of our predicament. Would the strawberry be so sweet, if there were no tiger awaiting?


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